Brian Hernandez Jr. is quick to give credit where credit is due.
In recalling his 2016 season, when he celebrated a career-high eight graded stakes wins and tallied his second highest single-season earnings, the 31-year-old jockey talked about the wave of good fortune that came his way. Good mounts make for even better outcomes and in that vein, Hernandez said he “got lucky and had the right kind of horses for the right races.”
Quietly yet methodically, the 2004 Eclipse Award winner for outstanding apprentice jockey has taken an already full career that boasts more than 1,600 victories and started adding some key intangibles to it.
A year ago, he rode in his first Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) aboard 12th-place finisher Tom’s Ready. By the end of the evening Feb. 11, he could be linked with a horse considered the leading contender this season for the first Saturday in May.
Hernandez has been in the eye of big-race hype before, but there is no buildup that quite compares with being attached to an unbeaten, graded stakes-winning 3-year-old about to take his first step on the Kentucky Derby trail. As the regular rider for Janis Whitham’s homebred colt McCraken, the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs, Hernandez could find his current groundswell of momentum dwarfed by what could come should his Ian Wilkes-trained mount prevail in his seasonal debut.
When Hernandez guided McCraken to victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs Nov. 26, it locked the son of Ghostzapper in as a sophomore to watch for 2017 and sealed the best season for his jockey since he steered Fort Larned —another Wilkes-trained, Whitham homebred—to victory in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). The $7,791,059 in earnings Hernandez amassed in 2016 was second only to his career-best total of $8,034,048 four years earlier.
The Kentucky Club Jockey Club triumph capped off a whirlwind stretch that saw the Louisiana native win three graded stakes in as many days. The other victories came aboard Thatcher Street in the Nov. 24 River City Handicap (G3T) and Linda in the Nov. 25 Mrs. Revere Stakes (G2T).
“You know, it just kind of snowballed,” Hernandez said of 2016. “Last year was one of the first years where I had multiple really good horses and won multiple graded races, and the momentum just kept building. Even last May, I was getting on a lot more 2-year-olds than I normally do.
“We had a really big year with the 2-year-olds and some of the older horses I had been riding, they kind of stepped up and won a couple graded races. … And to have the owners put the confidence in me to ride their better horses, it helps a lot and that’s the biggest thing.”
Hernandez’s ability has long been acknowledged as a solid presence on the Louisiana and Kentucky circuits, not that anyone could ignore him much after he racked up 243 wins during his Eclipse Award-winning season. It often takes a fortuitous pairing for an upstart jockey to gain access to that next, elite level, however. Appropriately enough, Hernandez cites his association with Fort Larned as that catalyst.
He gained the mount on the future multiple grade 1 winner in the 2012 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3), when the colt’s previous rider, Julien Leparoux, was committed to pilot Successful Dan in the same spot. The chemistry was instant as Hernandez booted Fort Larned to victory both that day and during his subsequent start in the Whitney Invitational Handicap (G1) in the run-up to their Breeders’ Cup heroics.
In addition to notching the first grade 1 victories of his career, Hernandez was also building a relationship with the Wilkes barn that has evolved him into the go-to rider for the former assistant to Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger.
“He understands what I’m trying to do, and he’s a great asset to my barn in helping and developing horses,” Wilkes said. “He’s good and he just knows how to put a horse in position to win a race.”
“It’s been a great working relationship, because riding for guys like Ian and Carl, they entrust me on some of the better horses and they’re easy to talk to,” Hernandez added. “It makes it to where it’s a team effort, where you don’t have any pressure going forward, like ‘Oh man, if I mess this up, I might not get another chance.’ With Ian and Carl, they are always behind you. Even in the big races … it’s ‘Let’s look at the bigger picture and get them to the next step.'”
Wilkes has plainly stated that the Sam F. Davis is not the end goal for McCraken. He doesn’t want the bay colt coming too much into his own before the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Hernandez has already compiled a career dotted with successes many will never get to the opportunity to experience. Like his late-running mount, momentum has been his friend in recent times, a powerful surge brought on by inherent talent that is being given a chance to reach a career pinnacle.
“We’re just going to try and get McCraken (to the Derby) and let him showcase how good he is,” Hernandez said. “I think the biggest thing we have to do is make sure it’s not any of us that stops him from running his best race. Just stay out of his way and let him take us there. But it’s excitement, really. There is no nervousness.”