From the Courier-Journal
Not many horse tracks race on Tuesdays, but blue-collar Fairmount Park near St. Louis is one. And that led to the biggest break of 29-year-old Rafael Hernandez’s career as a jockey.
Hernandez was the kingpin for most of his seven years riding at Fairmount, including winning at a 39-percent strike rate this year. But he was dominating in obscurity. Which gets to the twist of fate that brought Hernandez to Kentucky this fall, where he has won six races at Churchill Downs.
High-profile trainer Wesley Ward usually keeps a horse-racing cable channel on in his tack room office at Gulfstream Park. Being a Tuesday, it was showing Fairmount Park on Aug. 26 as Ward was hanging out with his buddy, jockey agent Cliff Collier, who was looking for a rider.
Hernandez won a race, and Ward — a former jockey who won the 1984 Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice — turned to Collier and said, “Hey, Cliff. That doesn’t look like a Fairmount rider, does he?”
The men left, returning later to see Hernandez crossing the finish line in front again. “And the announcer goes, ‘That’s five wins for Rafael Hernandez today,'” Collier said. “And Wesley goes, ‘Cliff, this is your rider. We can make him a star.'”
Ward had his assistant trainer make the initial call to Hernandez.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” Hernandez said. “Fairmount Park? They can hire someone with a name, someone they can sell more easily than me. Wesley told me, ‘I want to change your life.'”
Collier also followed up with a call. The next day Hernandez was riding at Arlington Park, where he asked jockey C.H. Marquez about the agent, who once worked for Marquez.
“He said he’s going to help me; I’m not sure if it’s true or not,'” Hernandez, a married father of two, recalls the conversation as going. “C.H. said, ‘I’m going to help you pack your stuff.'”
Less than a week later, Hernandez was riding three races at Indiana Downs, with a win and second for Ward and a victory for trainer Ralph Martinez, a Fairmount regular who also races in Chicago, Indiana and Kentucky.
But Ward owned the horses running that day. The next step was to get Hernandez on his clients’ horses, including those belonging to Ken Ramsey, who has a lot of turf horses. Ramsey was skeptical, pointing out that Fairmount Park doesn’t even have a grass course.
“Wesley calls me and says, ‘Have you checked out this kid Hernandez at Fairmount Park?'” Ramsey recalled on an evening when Hernandez won a stakes at Hawthorne for the owner. “I said, ‘No, I never look at Fairmount Park — a bad track as far as quality of horses are concerned.’
“He said, ‘Well, this kid is winning better than 30 percent. Would you consider letting him ride some of your horses?’ I said, ‘We can put him on a trial basis, and if he can’t take the pressure and advanced competition, why, no harm done.’ So we brought him over, and he never let up. He just keeps winning.”
Hernandez won with his first two mounts at Kentucky Downs, a track he’d never seen before. He has won four stakes for Ramsey, including earning his first graded stakes when the Mike Maker-trained International Star captured Woodbine’s Grade III Grey Stakes. The day of the Breeders’ Cup, Hernandez captured three stakes at Indiana Grand.
In fact, Hernandez has won 10 of his 24 career stakes since Sept. 13. Having never before earned more than $2 million in purses in a year, the jockey’s mounts have surpassed $3 million for 2014.
“You ride at ‘B’ tracks and you’re doing good, you think somebody is going to see you and help you, going step by step,” Hernandez said. “But from nowhere, nobody sees Fairmount Park. Only Tuesdays does TVG show Fairmount Park. They run three days a week, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday for six months. And the allowance races are worth $9,000. You have to ride a lot of races and win a lot of races to make decent money. And this guy calls me.”
Ward said he never worried that what he saw on TV that day was an illusion.
“He’s a natural,” Ward said by phone. “Horses run for him. He’s got that X factor to him. When I saw him, I knew that wherever he rode, he was going to be all right.
“He’s had a little bit of an adjustment. When you’re shoulder to shoulder with Javier Castellano, Johnny Velazquez and Mike Smith — when the boys come in to Keeneland — I think he’s a little enamored by those types of guys. But as he’s shouldering up to them in the jockeys room and in the gate, with the work ethic he has, his ability and the agent he has, hopefully he can climb up the ladder.”
Martinez said he’s only surprised that Hernandez stayed so long at Fairmount, in Collinsville, Ill.
“Because he’s leaps and bounds above that place,” he said. “… This is life-changing. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer person. He’s a super good kid.”
Hernandez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and is no kin to the Cajun-born Kentucky rider Brian Hernandez Jr., briefly rode at Churchill Downs and one summer at Ellis Park as an apprentice before moving on to Maryland and West Virginia. Once he lost his apprentice weight allowances, he said he returned to Fairmount, spending the past few winters in Chicago.
“He was definitely a good rider,” said jockey Jon Court, who remembers Hernandez riding at Ellis Park. “Trying to get the mounts you need, and on a regular daily basis, was tough for him. … He’s paid his dues with his perseverance and dedication. He’s got a huge career in front of him.”