Churchill Downs Communications, Kevin Kerstein

Coady Photography

Nine days ago the race was on between close friends Brian Hernandez Jr. and Corey Lanerie with only one win separating the duo for the leading jockey title at the 2018 Churchill Downs Spring Meet. But tragedy struck Friday, June 22 with the sudden loss of Lanerie’s wife, Shantel, which allowed Hernandez to clinch his first leading rider title at Churchill Downs.

“It’s a nice accomplishment, but it’s a bittersweet accomplishment to have it happen this meet with what happened with Corey and Shantel,” Hernandez said. “It would mean a whole lot more if Corey was here to battle it out.”

The 32-year-old rider clinched the title midway through Friday’s program at Churchill Downs and enters closing day with a 42-38-win lead over Florent Geroux, who is riding at Woodbine on Saturday.

Hernandez began the first week of the 38-day Spring Meet on top of the rider standings with six victories, most notably a 4 ¾-length score in the $300,000 Pat Day Mile (Grade III) presented by LG&E and KU with Funny Duck.

“Funny Duck’s win in the Pat Day Mile is probably what I’m proudest of this meet,” Hernandez said. “The whole Derby Day was special winning three races. We’ve been fortunate enough to work hard at it and been on some exciting 2-year-olds that we can go on the rest of the year with.”

Hernandez, who began riding at Churchill Downs in 2004, has recorded 546 wins beneath the Twin Spires and recently surpassed veteran Jon Court for 13th all time.

“You always reflect on the riders you’ve looked up to when you accomplish something like this,” Hernandez continued. “Guys like Calvin Borel and Corey have always been in the same corner as me in the (jockey’s) room. Watching those guys prosper and do well over the years really gives you motivation. It’s an elite group to be a part of and it’s truly an honor.

“The one thing that I’ve always learned from Calvin and Corey is to just keep showing up every day. If you show up every day, people will give you an opportunity. That’s the model that I’ve done throughout my career and it lets people know you’ll be there for them.”

A native of Louisiana, Hernandez has been represented for the last six years by Tom Amoss’ former assistant Frank Bernis.

“Our working relationship is one of the greatest,” Hernandez said. “I never have to call him after the races and he doesn’t have to call me. He texts me with my workers every day and goes out to do his job like I do mine. We’ll talk when we need to bounce ideas off one another but I have the ultimate trust in him to find the best horses to win races. It’s worked out great. We’ve been together six years now and haven’t had an argument which I love. We’re able to trust each other. We’re always going to be there and keep doing our job.”

Entering Saturday’s 12-race closing day program, Lanerie had 35 wins and was third in the jockey standings. Ricardo Santana Jr. was fourth with 27 wins and Shaun Bridgmohan and Julien Leparoux were tied for fifth with 24 wins.

Hernandez will be honored with his leading rider trophy following Race 4 Saturday at approximately 2:13 p.m. Lanerie and his daughter Brittlyn are expected to be on hand for the ceremony to congratulate Hernandez.