At a track in the desert, a featured stakes race starts with a horse breaking slowly out of post nine, tracking the field from the rear, picking off rivals as he turns for home, and clearing the rest of the field by several lengths at the wire.
Sound familiar? It may seem as though this story has already been told, but in this version, it is not Arrogate who finds himself in last place, but a 3-year-old colt named Hence. It is not Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith piloting the horse wide around the turn, but Alfredo Juarez, Jr., a familiar face on the New Mexico circuit on his way to winning the best race of his career to date, the $800,000 Sunland Derby (G3) on Sunday, March 26.
The Sunland Derby is a relative newcomer to the Kentucky Derby prep scene, but in recent years its purse and qualifying points have attracted top trainers and their Derby hopefuls to Sunland Park, New Mexico. The 2017 running of the Sunland Derby was no different, as Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill, D. Wayne Lukas and similar household names shipped contenders to Sunland. With the Triple Crown nominees came some of the best riders in the country: Javier Castellano, Jose Ortiz, Florent Geroux.
Trainer Steve Asmussen took a different approach. To win the best Thoroughbred race in New Mexico, he went to one of the best jockeys in New Mexico. Alfredo Juarez, Jr., is the current leading rider at Sunland Park and a 25-year veteran of the sport. He started riding at Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City, and earned his first U.S. win in 1996 at the Downs at Albuquerque.
Juarez is a staple for Thoroughbred connections in New Mexico. He is usually found in the top of the rider standings at all five New Mexico tracks and holds multiple riding titles, including a sweep of SunRay, Albuquerque and Zia Park in 2015.
Hence had proven that he can close successfully when he broke his maiden, but in the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn, he lacked the necessary kick to pass the field and finished seventh in a field of 12. Taking the colt back to last to run wide five around the turn and still have horse left in the stretch required confidence and knowledge of the Sunland surface on Juarez’s part.
Juarez’s win in the Sunland Derby was his fourth in a graded event, though the purse of Sunday’s race eclipsed his three previous graded wins combined. His career stakes wins include the $250,000 Hawthorne Derby (G3) in 2000, the $200,000 National Jockey Club Handicap (G3) in 2001, and the $200,000 Dallas Turf Cup (G3) in 2006. This was his fifth appearance in the Sunland Derby, including three rides when the race was known as the WinStar Derby. Until Sunday, his best effort was a fourth-place finish in 2010.
Juarez topped the North American jockey leaderboard last week by both total earnings ($570,412) and by stakes earnings ($522,000). In his 16 starts, he had four wins, one second, and six third place finishes. In 2017, Juarez has earned $1.18 million, placing him 32nd among all North American jockeys. He has racked up career earnings of over $47 million.
Hence is a Street Boss colt out of the A.P. Indy mare Floating Island. Owned and bred by Calumet Farms, his record is now 6-2-1-1 and he has earned $542,601. Hence was 12-1 on the morning line in a field of horses that included undefeated Sunland Park specialist Conquest Mo Money, who finished second.
Featured: Alfredo Juarez, Jr. and Hence in the 2017 Sunland Derby at Sunland Park. Photo: Coady Photography.