Jockey on the spot

Up-and-comer Brian Hernandez Jr. will ride Departing in Saturday's Preakness

Updated: May 15, 2013, 10:02 PM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

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ALTIMORE -- There is a picture in jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.'s basement of the rider aboard a Shetland pony, victorious as an 11-year-old at an old Louisiana bush track called The Quarter Pole. That photo from the '90s marked the end of an era; Hernandez was one of the last young Cajuns to come up in the twilight years, after the unregulated bush tracks -- helter-skelter and even less formal than a county fair -- had already been the starting point for top riders like Eddie Delahoussaye, Shane Sellers, Kent Desormeaux, Robby Albarado and Calvin Borel.

Now 27, Hernandez has grown gracefully -- first from his Louisiana roots, then to the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice of 2004 and finally to a polished reinsman who plies his trade on the Kentucky-New Orleans circuit. In November, he upset the Breeders' Cup Classic field aboard Fort Larned at odds of 9-1, and on Saturday he'll ride in his first Triple Crown race when he partners with Illinois Derby winner Departing to take on Kentucky Derby victor Orb in the Preakness Stakes.

Hernandez has ridden Departing, a 3-year-old son of War Front trained by fellow Louisiana native Al Stall Jr., in all five of the gelding's starts for Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider. They've lost only once, running a respectable third in the Louisiana Derby two races ago, when Departing was stepping up into graded company for the first time.

"He's ridden him five times, and the record's four wins and a nice finish in the Louisiana Derby, where the horse learned a lot," Stall said. "Since he's won four out of five, the feedback has mostly just been high-fives in the winner's circle."

Horses like Fort Larned and Departing are the type riders look for, steady commitments and careerlong associations to take each other places. When connections show loyalty to a particular rider, that bond continues to grow. Think Mike Smith and Zenyatta, Edgar Prado and Barbaro, even Borel and Rachel Alexandra.

[+] EnlargeBrian Hernandez Jr.
Harry How/Getty ImagesBrian Hernandez Jr. got his breakthrough victory aboard 9-1 shot Fort Larned in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 3.
The 2009 Horse of the Year was actually one of Hernandez's best mounts before she went on to beat Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Preakness four years ago, but Hernandez wasn't in the saddle that day. He rode Rachel five times when she was a 2-year-old, including two victories and a runner-up finish in the Grade 3 Debutante Stakes at Churchill Downs, but in the way of the racetrack, he lost the mount to Hall of Famer Borel when the "big race" days came around.

"I've been taken off some good ones, like Rachel, and I rode [2005 Kentucky Oaks winner] Summerly once as well," Hernandez said. "Everybody gets taken off now and then; it just kind of depends on the situation. After you step up and win bigger races, you're more inclined to be able to keep good horses."

The Breeders' Cup Classic, for owner Janis Whitham and trainer Ian Wilkes, was just Hernandez's second Grade I victory; his first was also on Fort Larned, earlier in the summer in the 2012 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Those wins helped elevate the jockey's profile in a sport where he's already proved he belongs.

Fresh off the Breeders' Cup victory, Hernandez finished sixth in the standings at Fair Grounds Racetrack in New Orleans, where he was 12th in 2011. He rode 350 mounts, almost 100 more than he did in 2011, and won with 64 of them for earnings of $2,055,256 at an 18 percent win rate (compared to 23 wins at 10 percent the previous season). His national earnings for 2012 were $8,034,048, a career best thanks to the Breeders' Cup victory. But a more revealing statistic illustrates how his business has grown: This year, the $2,377,096 his runners have brought in has already surpassed his total for all of 2011.

Those statistics translate to a strong increase in confidence from connections of nice runners. In fact, over the winter at Fair Grounds, Hernandez and agent Frank Bernis found themselves named on some very good maidens, like eventual Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul for trainer Dallas Stewart and promising contender Proud Strike for trainer Steve Asmussen. Bernis thought Departing was the best of them all.

"Anytime you win a $5 million race that's televised, everybody notices," Hernandez said. "It helps you out for sure. But I've kind of always tried to remind myself that those guys who are top riders have 10-15 years on me too. That's the way I've looked at it: Stick it out, pay your dues, and hopefully good opportunities will eventually come your way."

• • • • •

Hernandez grew up around horses, as did his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Brian Hernandez Sr. took out his license in 1989 and still rides at age 48, currently based at Evangeline Downs. He remembered how young Brian would tag along to work with him -- and how his son's destiny was crystal clear.

"It was something he always wanted to do," he said, "and he was good at it from the start."

With the elder Hernandez working as a main rider for trainer Dale Angelle, his son started working on the farm. From 12 to 18, he galloped runners for Angelle and learned to master his craft while breezing horses in training -- and thanks to one summer riding the bush track.

"We rode quarter horses, mules, Shetland ponies, pretty much anything that would run," he said. "Racing, well, I just I grew up on it. My dad started riding, and I was like 3 the first time I went to the track. I remember just always being there."

"The one thing I told him was, 'Once you start riding, promise me you'll finish school,'" the elder Hernandez said. "He'd go to work in the morning, he would gallop, breeze horses for Dale, get done galloping there in the mornings and go to school in the afternoons. Then after school he'd meet me and we'd go to Delta to ride the night races. Then we'd come back home and start all over again."

The elder Hernandez has raised more than one jockey from five children: 25-year-old Colby Hernandez has been riding races since 2006, and 19-year-old Courtney gallops thoroughbreds in the mornings and works as a pony girl, one of the mounted riders who escort racehorses in the post parade and warm-ups en route to the gate.

"It's kind of tough to watch as a parent, but if that's something they want to do, I'm behind them 100 percent," Hernandez Sr. said. He watches his children ride and offers constructive criticism when needed.

Since he's won four out of five, the feedback has mostly just been high-fives in the winner's circle.

-- Al Stall Jr., trainer of Departing,
on jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.
The younger Brian took out his license in 2003, still riding as a high school bug boy, but when he graduated in 2004, he made the move to Kentucky and tackled the big time.

"When I first started out, I was riding at Delta and Shane Sellers would come over there for stakes now and then," Hernandez said. "He'd always sit down and talk to me, and he lined me up with his agent at the time, Fred Aime, and made arrangements for me to come up after I graduated high school."

During Derby week at Churchill Downs in 2004, Hernandez rode beneath the Twin Spires for the first time.

"I got on a starter allowance horse for Pat Byrne. He was like 6-5. All I had to do was not fall off," he said. "But for an 18-year-old kid just leaving high school, to walk into Churchill Downs and ride against the best there, it was incredible."

During that spring meet, the jockey won 21 races from 195 mounts, and that fall he went 23 for 176. He wrapped up an outstanding year by clinching the riding title back home at Evangeline, leading the nation's apprentices in victories with 243 wins from 1,466 starts for earnings of $4.4 million.

Since then, there have been ups and downs, but never have Hernandez's earnings dipped below the $2 million mark. He has won more than 1,000 races and has collected riding titles at Turfway Park, Ellis Park, Evangeline and Kentucky Downs.

• • • • •

Hernandez did not expound much upon his thoughts heading into his first Triple Crown classic beyond conceding that he is, of course, excited about the opportunity. But that's par for the course with the levelheaded young rider, Stall said.

"You can't really tell when he's up or down; he's the same all the time," the trainer said. "He's even-tempered, win or lose. He's good about that."

Hernandez's straight-shooting nature kept him out of trouble through his formative years and laid the foundation for the respectable reputation he's developed as he approaches his 30s -- the prime years of a jockey's career.

"I've seen a couple of friends of mine that started at the same time as me. They aren't doing anything now because of drugs," he said. "I think it's important to just follow the right people, associate yourself with the right people. If you associate yourself with the right people, you'll go far."

Hernandez's parents will attend the Preakness, along with the jockey's wife, Jamie, who works as an assistant for Asmussen and as an assistant track photographer.

Hernandez Sr. said he's proud of his son, and while he may be ready to offer constructive criticism, when it comes to the jockey's first Triple Crown race, all he feels is pride.

"I'm pretty sure he'll be OK now," Hernandez Sr. said with a laugh. "Talking about races like that, I'm going to have to start asking him for advice."