Brian Hernandez Jr. had originally planned to ride fulltime at the
current Gulfstream Park meeting, only to make a last-minute decision to
return to Fair Grounds for the winter. However, there will be no keeping
the 27-year-old Louisiana native away from the Hallandale Beach track
on Saturday, when he is scheduled to ride Fort Larned in the $300,000
Gulfstream Park Handicap.
Hernandez, who had ridden under the radar since being honored as the
country’s champion apprentice in 2004 with an Eclipse Award,
experienced a breakout moment when he guided Fort Larned to victory in
the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 3. Hernandez
had built a solid career since winning 243 races in 2004, as evidenced
by his 1000th career victory last summer at Ellis Park, but nothing can
spark a jockey’s career more than a victory in the country’s richest
race with the whole Thoroughbred world watching.
“This is life-changing,” said Hernandez, whose heads-up ride aboard
Fort Larned was worth $270,000 to the son of still-active Brian
Hernandez, who has won nearly 1300 races during 24 years of riding
primarily in Louisiana.
Hernandez was given the opportunity to ride in bigger races by Fort
Larned’s trainer Ian Wilkes, and he came through with the flying colors
of owner-breeder Janis Whitham. It was a matter of being at the right
place at the most opportune moment that aided Hernandez in joining the
Fort Larned team.
“I got lucky. I rode him in a two-other-than (allowance at Churchill
Downs) in the fall (of 2011) that he won. Then he went down to Florida
with the rest of Ian’s horses and I didn’t get back on him until the
Cornhusker in Iowa (June 30),” Hernandez said. “The only reason I got to
ride him in the Cornhusker is because I was there that night to ride
the Oaks for Rusty Arnold and Julien (Leparoux) had another mount in the
Fort Larned, who won the Skip Away (G3) at Gulfstream in
track-record time, went unchallenged in a front-running three-length
victory at Prairie Meadows over the heavily favored Successful Dan,
ridden by Leparoux. Hernandez and the son of E Dubai came right back to
capture the Whitney Handicap (G1) at Saratoga with a sharp off-the-pace
score. A solid third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) behind defending
champ Flat Out at Belmont set up Fort Larned for his stunning Classic
Years of hard work gave Hernandez a special appreciation for his Classic success.
“You get up every morning and go to work every day. You get knocked
down more than you get pushed up,” said Hernandez, who ranks fourth in
the jockey’s standings at Fair Grounds. “But you have to get up every
day with a smile and go out there and work as many horses as you can and
hope for the best, and hope you find a Fort Larned out there.”
Hernandez’s dedication to his career didn’t go unnoticed by the man
who provided him the horse who gave him the ride of his life.
“He rides a good race; he always has ridden a good race. Sometimes,
he just hasn’t had enough horse underneath him,” said Wilkes, who has
regularly provided mounts for Hernandez in Kentucky. “He puts a horse in
position to win a race. That’s the main thing.”