05/25/2005 12:00AM

Young rider picks up where others left off


Jockey Rafael Hernandez was fresh off a finger injury and stuck in the middle of the jockey standings as a field of low-end maiden claimers came down the Fairmount homestretch in the first race on May 7. With a light workload and about to lose his weight allowance, Hernandez had just released his agent, Larry Turner, in favor of recently retired ex-jockey John Woodley.

As the field hit the tape, jockey Gilbert Concha's horse, North Creek Slew, broke down. Concha broke his collarbone - an injury from which he is still recovering - and the horse was subsequently euthanized. What this meant for Hernandez was a surprise mount, subbing for Concha aboard the filly Akana in the featured seventh race, a $23,000 handicap.

Hernandez won the race, and he has been winning ever since, steadily climbing up the standings, where his 35 victories in 191 starts through May 23 rank second to perennial front-runner Ramsey Zimmerman. The nephew of legendary Thistledown jockey Heriberto Rivera Jr. - a winner of 3,000 races and now a steward at Great Lakes Downs - Hernandez also was given a handful of mounts from Ralph Martinez's dominant stable while Zimmerman recovered from a pair of spills in the weeks preceding Concha's injury.

Hernandez, 20, graduated from riding school in Puerto Rico before coming to Fairmount last year on his uncle's advice. He credits much of his success to Woodley.

"I give him pointers that nobody's ever offered him, because I've been there," said Woodley, a 36-year-old who once rode regularly for trainer Steve Asmussen's stable at Lone Star. "But the bottom line is if you give someone pointers and they don't listen to you, it doesn't make a difference. But Raffy listens."