Brian Hernandez Jr., winner of the 2012 Ellis Park riding crown, didn’t waste any time taking the first steps toward potentially another riding title, winning Sunday’s second race aboard Menacing on opening day of Ellis’ 2018 meet.
The Louisiana native was at Ellis the day after wrapping up his first riding title at Churchill Downs in his adopted hometown of Louisville, 43 wins to 38 for runner-up Florent Geroux. But the sheer joy that the accomplishment should have brought was countered by the anguish when the tight title tilt with his close friend and 15-time Churchill riding champ Corey Lanerie ended with the sudden death of Lanerie’s wife, Shantel.
Lanerie, who won the last two Ellis Park jockey titles, hasn’t ridden since June 21, when Shantel, who was undergoing treatment for Stage 1 breast cancer, had emergency surgery after an infected colon led to sepsis and cardiac arrest. She died the next day.
“It was a bittersweet moment,” Hernandez, who held a 36-35 lead over Lanerie on June 21, said of winning the title. “As everyone knows, Corey Lanerie and I were close in the standings, and his wife fell ill the last nine days of the meet and she succumbed to it. Our heart goes out to their family. It’s bittersweet to be able to win the title. But I wish we’d had Shantel here with us.”
Lanerie and their 10-year-old daughter, Brittlyn, came to Churchill’s closing day Saturday to be part of the presentation for the meet’s leading jockey.
“That was really special,” said the 32-year-old Hernandez, who in 2004 won the Eclipse Award as America’s outstanding apprentice jockey and in 2012 captured the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Fort Larned. “That was one of the requests Corey asked of me, to go ahead and try to win the title in Shantel’s memory. Like he said, if he couldn’t do it, she’d have loved for me to go ahead and do it. It was really special for him and Brittlyn to come down and get in the winner’s circle presentation and photo. It was just a special family moment.”
Hernandez spent one summer riding at Saratoga’s elite in upstate New York before deciding it made more business sense to stay at home in Kentucky with wife Jamie and their two young kids, riding at Ellis and shipping out for stakes for his clientele as needed.
“Especially the last couple of years, the 2-year-old program at Ellis has really gotten strong,” Hernandez said. “This is a great place to get young horses going in the summertime, and the track is always in great shape.”
Hernandez won 13 races at the 2017 Ellis meet, good for sixth place, while missing a lot of days to ride in stakes out of state.
“That will kind of be the same deal this summer,” he said. “We do emphasize the stakes program, then try to go around the country to ride the better horses. That’s really what it’s all about. You want to be able to pick up better horses and keep moving forward with them.
“And that’s one reason we do come to Ellis, because we pick up some nice 2-year-olds to go with the rest of the year and beyond. It makes it nice because you can come here and ride and then go home at night and spend quality time with the family. And with racing here only three days a week, it’s almost like a little summer vacation.”
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