Some things just run in the family. Brian Hernandez Jr. knew at a young age that he wanted to be a jockey just like his father.
“I just I grew up on [racing].” he told ESPN in a 2013 profile. “My dad started riding, and I was like 3 the first time I went to the track. I remember just always being there.”
Hernandez Jr. started breezing horses in the morning at Delta Downs from age 12 to 17, then took out a license and began his career. Hernandez Sr. was hesitant to let his son ride at first, but he understood his son’s desire to ride having watched his father for years, just as Hernandez Sr. looked up to his father, who was also in the horse racing business.
“The one thing I told him was, ‘Once you start riding, promise me you’ll finish school,’” Hernandez Sr. told ESPN in 2013. “He’d go to work in the morning…gallop, breeze horses…and go to school in the afternoons. Then after school he’d meet me and we’d go to Delta to ride the night races. Then we’d come back home and start all over again.”
Once Hernandez Jr. graduated high school in 2004 he took on bigger challenges outside of Delta Downs, riding on the Kentucky circuit. By the time he came back to Louisiana at the end of the year to grab leading rider honors at Evangeline Downs, Hernandez Jr. had won 243 races from 1,466 mounts, garnering over $4 million in purse money. He was honored with the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice that year.
Despite his immediate success, Hernandez Jr. had a tough time securing premier mounts for quite a few years. Hernandez Jr. was the rider of Rachel Alexandra for four of her first five starts, but in advance of her 2009 championship season he was supplanted by veteran rider Calvin Borel. But his confidence did not waver.
“Everybody gets taken off now and then; it just kind of depends on the situation,” he told ESPN.
His perseverance paid off in 2012 when he landed the mount on Fort Larned in the Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows. He won that race in gate-to-wire fashion by three lengths, then invaded Saratoga and upset the Grade I Whitney.
Two starts later, Hernandez Jr. and Fort Larned would pull off another gate-to-wire stunner, taking the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. Horse and rider would add another Grade I to their résumé in 2013 (The Stephen Foster) before Fort Larned’s retirement, but the success didn’t stop there for Hernandez Jr.
He’s currently the rider of Eagle, who won the Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland earlier this year and has been knocking on the door of Grade I success. All told, Hernandez Jr. won 162 races in 2015, his best mark since his Eclipse Award-winning season, and is on a similar pace in 2016.
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