Brian HernandezFrom Fair Grounds
The career of jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. has been a successful exercise in understatement. Self-effacing and subtly astute in demeanor, it is easy to forget when having a casual chat with the native of Lafayette, Louisiana that he once sat atop one of the greatest fillies in American racing history in Rachel Alexandra (in her first five races), has an Eclipse Award on his shelf (champion apprentice of 2004) and won the richest race in America when landing the 2012 Grade I $5,000,000 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Fort Larned. Now 29 years old, the amiable winner of nearly 1,300 races in enjoying his ninth Fair Grounds Race Course season with the same fervor he did nearly a decade ago.

“I love riding here,” Hernandez said. “It has changed throughout the years, but all the people we have ridden for over the years have been loyal. When I first came here, I was riding a lot for Mr. Hal Wiggins – who is now a steward – and have always had support from Merrill Scherer and ridden on-and-off for Asmussen and a few others. It all sort of evolves and the biggest thing down here is that it’s hard to come late after Churchill because the fall meet’s last week is always huge.”

With regular Kentucky supporters like Fort Larned’s trainer Ian Wilkes sending their strings to Florida and elsewhere, coming back to Louisiana can function as both a challenging start-over point and also as a positive chance to refresh and reconnect with other horsemen.

“The evolution of this place over the last few years has been a lot more focused on Louisiana trainers,” Hernandez continued. “It can be tough because sometimes you don’t have the option of coming early and riding for them in the first couple weeks of the meet. It’s definitely something good to do if you can, but I had too many good 2-year-olds to ride this year. I have a filly (Silverpocketsfull) and colt (Gorgeous Bird) that Ian trains and, of course, Eagle for Neil (Howard). We’ll try to ping-pong all over the place to get on those horses.”

Eagle, who was sent off as the 3-1 favorite in the Grade III $200,000 Lecomte Stakes on Saturday afternoon, failed to win after a wide and rough trip. Still, the son of Candy Ride was one of five stakes rides for Hernandez, making him one of only two jockeys (along with Robby Albarado) to ride the entire quintet of stakes on Jan. 17. Accordingly, the old ‘quality over quantity’ adage seems to be a recurring theme this meet for the talented rider as he is only striking at 8%, but has two stakes wins and is seventh in earnings with nearly a half-million in purses.

“Our quality is really good,” Hernandez said. “Our everyday stock isn’t that great so far, but we’re doing really well with stakes horses. It just kind of fell that way. Eagle has worked well and looks great. (El Kabier), who beat him at Churchill, came back and won at Aqueduct. I also really like Forever Unbridled – she’s a talented filly.”

Forever Unbridled (above), in her first start out of maiden ranks, was a game runner-up in the Listed $125,000 Silverbulletday Stakes on Saturday afternoon and is now squarely on the road to hopefully emulate her dam Lemons Forever and win the Kentucky Oaks. Hernandez also rode her to an impressive two-turn victory in December for trainer Dallas Stewart and owner Charles Fipke.

“You have to approach being successful by staying busy and riding the next horse,” he explained. “Ian would always tell me to take care of my business because Fort Larned wasn’t going to be there forever. You’re always looking for that next big horse. You always want to get it to the next level, but you have to take it day-by-day. This summer when we went to Saratoga to try to broaden our business, it was tough to break in with those guys and you can’t expect to immediately be the top dog – but you have to do it.”

Consistently trying to improve his weaknesses, while also fortifying his strengths as a journeyman, has been a process the very analytical Hernandez maintains diligently.

“I would say my ability to read a race and let a horse do what they need to do to get it done – to be a good passenger – is a strength of mine,” he said. “The biggest thing you learn after riding for a long time is to just try to give your horse the cleanest trip you can. If you can give them a clean trip and they aren’t good enough to get it done – then it’s not their day. I hope to get better at approaching people about riding their horses. I rarely go and ask to ride a horse; I usually just go with the flow – I would like to improve on that.”

Even if his disposition can seem reserved, the multiple graded stakes-winning earner of nearly $43 million in purses has a sharp and ambitious vision of where he wants his wife Jamie, four-month-old daughter Joshlyn and himself to be the first Saturday in May.

“Our goal is to get a 3-year-old for the (Kentucky) Derby,” Hernandez said. “We are hoping Eagle will carry us there. He ran so well at Churchill and has always shown so much ability. That and to have good stakes horses to ride in the summer and throughout the year is my focus.”