By Chelsea Hackbarth for The Paulick Report

It was with an air of absolute confidence that jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., rode top 3-year-old McCraken in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. While making his first start of 2017, the son of Ghostzapper was impressive, extending his undefeated record and announcing himself a major candidate for the Kentucky Derby.

“He’s so talented, he puts that confidence in you,” Hernandez said. “Even in the post parade, he goes out there and he pays attention to what he’s doing and he knows his job. You just have to trust him to do his job.”

McCraken did his job on Saturday, setting a new track record in the process. There were a couple of green moments in the stretch run, during which McCraken drifted slightly toward his rivals, but Hernandez kept him focused on his task to win by 1 ½ lengths.

“We thought he was the best horse, and going forward, that he didn’t have to win, but we thought he could,” said Hernandez. “A lot of times you go from these 2-year-olds that are going to turn three, and you’re always worried that everybody else is going to catch up. Maybe you had just an early 2-year-old. But he stepped up as well, so that was big.”

McCraken may not yet be in the Kentucky Derby, but with 20 points already and an undefeated record, the Ian Wilkes trainee is near the top of most every list of contenders.

Should McCraken enter the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, it won’t be the first time Hernandez has been in the spotlight. The 31-year-old Louisiana native rode his first Kentucky Derby last year, finishing 12th on the Dallas Stewart-trained Tom’s Ready.

Long before that, however, Hernandez began making a name for himself as a jockey. He has done so quietly, preferring to let the horses he rides do the talking for him. In 2004, he won 243 races to earn the Eclipse Award for top apprentice jockey, and in 2012, he piloted Fort Larned to an upset in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Fort Larned raced for the same connections that McCraken does, trainer Ian Wilkes and owner/breeder Janis Whitham.

“I think he’s one of the most underrated jockeys out there,” Wilkes said of Hernandez after he guided McCraken to victory in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November. “I’ve always used Brian, he’s been in the barn for a long time. We have a great relationship. And Brian proved it with Fort Larned; if he’s got the horse, he can ride with anyone.”

“With Ian and Tracey, it’s almost like family,” echoed Hernandez. “We went down to Palm Meadows last week to work McCraken, and I took Jaime (wife) and Jocelyn (2-year-old daughter) and Ben (7-month-old son) with me. We all went to dinner together. It’s not just the racing side, it’s the whole experience.”

Family has always been important to Hernandez. He travels from Churchill Downs and the Kentucky circuit to the Fair Grounds in the winter, and his parents still come to watch his races on a regular basis (and help out with the young children, of course).

“It’s great because having them behind us is a lot of fun,” Hernandez said. “Especially now that Jocelyn is getting to where she’s talking, and she knows what’s going on. You can have the worst day at the racetrack, and think ‘Man, this couldn’t get any worse.’ But the minute she hears the keys in the front door, she’s there waiting for you screaming your name. They make things a whole lot more fun, and they make the whole profession more enjoyable.”

Perhaps the jockey’s seemingly-innate skills are also a product of family: Hernandez’ father was a jockey for nearly 20 years. He was born in Lafayette, La., at a time when bush-league racing ruled the local entertainment schedule. These were the same small-time tracks that produced top jockeys like Calvin Borel, Kent Desormeaux, and Robby Albarado.

Hernandez grew up on and around the racetrack, spending summers riding every other Sunday at the bush tracks before he was old enough to ride professionally. With names like Breaux Bridge and Arcadiana, some of the racetracks had dirt ovals to race over, while others were straightaway stretches or even just swatches cut out of a sugar cane field. The locals would get together with food and drinks and bet amongst themselves, each race day drawing as many as 200 people.

“It was Quarter Horses and Shetland ponies and whatever else they could find to race,” Hernandez laughed. “I think the craziest thing I ever saw on the bush tracks was one particular match race. The two guys that owned the horses, they had both been drinking pretty good all afternoon. Well they decided that instead of getting jocks to ride them, they’d just go ahead and ride them themselves. They went out there and matched these two horses, and the one guy was so intoxicated he ended up falling off.”

Shortly after his 18th birthday, Hernandez rode his first professional race at Louisiana’s Delta Downs. His first win came on Nov. 29, 2003, aboard a horse named Hughes. That winter, the jockey made friends with rider Shane Sellers, a top jockey from Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans. Sellers offered to connect Hernandez with his agent, saying the young jockey could come to Churchill Downs after he graduated high school. Hernandez readily agreed.

“He found me a ‘hang-me-on’ to ride at Churchill on Derby week,” said Hernandez. “It was my first ever ride at Churchill, and I won. He was 6-5, so all I had to do was not fall off.”

Making it from Louisiana’s bush leagues to Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby week, and later to the winner’s circle for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was all part of the dream for a kid who grew up ensconced in every aspect of the sport.

“Winning the Classic is probably one of the ultimate goals of racing,” Hernandez said. “Growing up in the sport like I did, I always sat in front of the TV and watched those guys win those kind of races, and I would always think ‘Man, one day I hope to get there.’”

Fort Larned’s Classic victory was also special for Hernandez because it proved to him the brilliance of trainer Ian Wilkes. Fort Larned prepped for the Classic in Belmont’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, where he finished third, beaten 5 ½ lengths as the heavy favorite. Understandably, Hernandez was a bit downtrodden after the loss.

“I’ll never forget what Ian told me when after we got beat in the Jockey Club, walking through the tunnel at Belmont,” he said. “He told me, ‘Don’t worry about today. Today wasn’t our ultimate goal. We’re gonna win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.’ I just kinda stood there for a moment, I’m like, ‘what?’ But he knew what he was talking about.”

Fort Larned went off at odds of 9-1 that day in 2012, but after leading throughout was able to turn back a determined Mucho Macho Man to win by a half-length on the wire. Now, Hernandez is hoping McCraken can take Mrs. Whitham’s colors to the Kentucky Derby. Though both Fort Larned and McCraken were bred under the Whitham name and both were trained by Ian Wilkes, Hernandez said those are their only similarities.

“They’re two completely different horses,” he explained. “A horse like Fort Larned, it took him a while to come around, when he finally did it wasn’t until his 4-year-old year. McCraken came in early, and from day one Ian thought he was a really good horse. For him to jump up and win first time out, that was big, because Ian’s program is not about winning first time, it’s all about progressing the horse. So, for him to do that and do what he’s done, it’s just a testament to how good he is.”

He may not be the most well-known rider in the jock’s room, but Hernandez has quietly been building a resume that shows he is one of the top in the country. He’s won more than 1,600 races for earnings of $56 million since his career began in late 2003. Still, Hernandez stays humble, considering himself one of the younger guys in the room. He takes care to observe and learn from the more experienced riders he shares the circuit with.

“Guys that get to that point in their career, they’re always willing to help you if you just want to learn from them,” Hernandez said, naming Calvin Borel, Robby Albarado and John Velasquez as some of the most willing teachers. “They’ll help the next guy, if you’re willing to let them.”

Above all, said Hernandez, he is grateful that Wilkes has entrusted him with the horses in his stable. Both he and Wilkes have a similar mindset, it seems. After the race Saturday, Wilkes made a point to direct the media attention away from himself and onto the horse, saying, “Let’s pay all credit to the horse. He’s taking us there. Let’s pay attention to him.”

Hernandez agreed: “You can be the best rider, the best trainer, the best whatever in the world, but if you don’t have the horse behind you, it’s going to make your job a whole lot tougher. You see a lot of guys that want to take credit for what they do, but if it’s not for the horse behind you, you’re not going to get very far.

“I wouldn’t want to trade places with anybody right now,” he continued. “I have a talented 3-year-old in my corner, and the right connections that are going to prepare him.”