Jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr., who made his Kentucky Derby debut last year, is in an enviable position as this year’s Derby approaches. Hernandez, 31, is the rider for two serious contenders – McCraken for trainer Ian Wilkes and Girvin for trainer Joe Sharp. McCraken, undefeated in four starts, won the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in his last race and is headed to the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 8. Girvin, who has won two of three races, is coming off a victory in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds and will run there next in the Louisiana Derby on April 1. During a recent Fair Grounds dark day, Hernandez sat down with award winning turf writer Bob Fortus to talk about his Derby prospects.
Bob Fortus: So, you’re in an amazing spot with two Derby horses. That’s sort of like Pat Day or Jerry Bailey, who usually had decisions to make. What does that feel like?
Brian Hernandez, Jr.: “It’s good. They both still have to make it there before we have to worry about making a decision. They seem like two really good horses, so it’s exciting. This is what you work for every year, and you try to get these good 3-year-olds like this. And to able to have two of them right now, it’s something to look forward to every day.”
Do you want to put off the decision as long as you can? Is there a strategy to it?
“Yeah, of course. I’ve been riding McCraken – well, I’ve been riding both of them – since Day 1. And after McCraken won the Sam F. Davis, and Girvin came back and won the (Risen Star). I went to Joe and (talked to) him, because he had a few phone calls, because they, agents, know I’ve been riding McCraken. So they called, and were like, ‘Hey, you might think about riding another rider for the Louisiana Derby, so somebody can make at least a two-race commitment.’ I asked Joe if I could just go ahead and stick with him for the Louisiana Derby at least, because I know the horse. It’s going to be a little easier to develop a horse to go into the Derby if I ride him. Like I told Joe, ‘You don’t want a guy to come in here and just test-drive your horse. A guy is just going to test-drive, and then if he just runs OK, then they’re going to hop on another one.”
Without knowing what’s best for the horse to win that race.
“Exactly. So they’ve agreed that I get to ride him in the Louisiana Derby, and then we’ll have McCraken for the Blue Grass, and we’ll see what happens. We still don’t have a decision to make yet.”
So, ideally, you could wait until after the Blue Grass. That would be the ideal thing to do.
“Ideally, yeah. But we’ll have to see. In this kind of situation, this is the biggest race in the country, so everybody’s kind of wanting to get all their eggs in a basket. So we’ll just kind of have to play it day by day, see what happens.”
It’s a little different from last year, when you rode in your first Derby. It wasn’t one of the horses on the radar. (Hernandez rode Tom’s Ready to a 12th-place finish.)
“Yeah, exactly. Last year was great, because the horse we rode, he was a really nice horse. He was second in the Louisiana Derby. But it wasn’t as magnified as it is this year, is the best way to put it.”
What was riding in the Derby like?
“It was great. I mean, there were 20 horses, but we got lucky. I was on a horse that was tactical enough that he put himself in a good spot. And we were actually right behind Nyquist the whole way until the quarter pole, and then he just kind of faded off. He didn’t get the distance, more than anything. And he showed that when he came back in the Woody Stephens.”
Could you compare the two horses you’re riding now, how they might be similar and how they might be different?
“They actually have a lot of similarities. They’re both really, really athletic horses. Like Girvin the other day, for just his third start, to be able to put himself in that spot, kind of give you the dream trip that I needed the whole way. It’s pretty impressive. And then, McCraken, he’s very sensible. He knows what’s going on, and he wants to be a really, really good horse. It’s a great position to be in, because they’re both such good horses that it’s hard to separate them, really. Time will tell. They’re both lightly raced for a 3-year-old, but it seems like they’re getting better and better.”
Some people who are always looking for the flaws in horses say something like, ‘That horse won, but he had a really good trip.’ But the good trip is sometimes a function of the horse.
“Exactly. In order to have the good trips like that on those horses, you need the horse under you. And that’s the good thing about those two horses. When you need them, they’re there for you. Of course, you’re going to need it when these races step up, too. You’re going to need a horse that’s going to be there for you. And they’re both similar, because they’ll be there for you, but then they’ll come back. They’ll turn back off. They’ll just wait for you until you need them again, and they’re there for you.”
That was the impressive thing about Girvin. He ran fast going short the first time, and then he ran competitively on the turf although it didn’t seem like he liked it at all (in a second-place finish in the Keith Gee Memorial).
“No, he didn’t. He didn’t like the grass at all. And the funny thing was, we came back, and Brad Grady (the owner), I got off him, and he says: ‘He really liked that grass course, huh? No, I’m joking.’ You can tell from the first jumps away from the gates he wasn’t liking it at all. But he still ran a really big race to be second. The gallop-out was great. What I really liked was after the race, we came back, got him back, and it didn’t stress him. For a horse that didn’t take to the grass at all, it didn’t stress him. And his numbers, they didn’t fluctuate much. He still ran a good enough race to be competitive. That’s why we had a lot of confidence in him going into the Risen Star.”
And then in the Risen Star, going long on the dirt for the first time, he ran a really professional race.
“You know, he had the best Rag(ozin) number out of his maiden race going into the Risen Star, so we had a lot of confidence in him, thinking that he’d run that good. He just needed to go out there and show it. It was his first time going two turns on the dirt, but Joe did a good job of having him ready for that race.”
How much concern was there about McCraken when you heard about his little hiccup (minor ankle injury that kept him out of the Tampa Bay Derby)?
“Not a whole lot, because knowing Ian and his program, he’s going to do what’s right for the horse. If that means he has to take a little time and not get the exact schedule that he was looking for, so be it. The good thing about those guys – Ian and Carl (Nafzger) – there’s always a plan. It’s never, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ It’s always, ‘How are we going to get this horse to this race at this time.’ … It wasn’t Plan A. Plan A didn’t work. He went to Plan B. That’s the good thing about those guys. There’s always a way to move a horse forward.”
Is Carl helping Ian now?
“Oh yeah. It’s kind of one in the same. Carl comes by the barn all the time. Miss Wanda is out all the time. They’re both in business together – Carl and Ian – and they discuss everything that goes on.”
That’s quite an experienced hand to have helping you.
“Like Ian says, he’s the only trainer with a Hall of Fame assistant.”
As far as signature races that you’ve won, there’s obviously one that stands out (the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic on Fort Larned). Does that experience help you going into the Triple Crown or is it a whole different thing?
“It’s a different ball game from the Breeders’ Cup, just because of the media coverage and you’re just so polarized. But come race day, it’s all the same. This is what I strive for, to be there on the big days and ride the big races. That’s what you get a lot of enjoyment out, being able to be associated with the big horses and having the fun of it.”
Well, you’re certainly in a good position now. Let’s hope you make the right decision. It could be a very hard decision to make.
“It will be. Because like I said, they’re both really, really good horses. The good thing about both of them, you haven’t seen the best of them yet.”
Is it fair to say you’re not leaning one way or another, without giving away any secrets?
“We’re enjoying the ride. That’s the biggest thing. That’s what I keep telling everyone. We’re just here enjoying it. Enjoy the moment. It’s not going to last forever, so you’ve just got to enjoy it.”
And the people you’re working for, it helps to have people who aren’t forcing the issue?
“Exactly. The guys, they do a really good job. They’re both letting their horses step up for them. It’s just been fun. … We’re just enjoying it. That’s the biggest thing.”