Earl Hernandez, Keith Hernandez, and John Duvieilh–LA-bred owners and advocates
New Orleans, LA (February 3, 2022) – Across Lake Pontchartrain, north of Covington, tucked away by winding sideroads, shaded by elder pine trees and oaks, Earl Hernandez, his son Keith Hernandez, and good friend John Duvieilh have created a sanctuary for broodmares, foals, and turned out horses, alike. A setting where the Thoroughbred can be energized by Louisiana land and sky.
At the Hernandez Farm, the efforts of the entire state can be found. The energy, ideas and friendships that yield the crops of our sport. Owners of racehorses since the 1980s, breeders since the 1990s, and advocates for Louisiana horsemen and backside workers alike, these three men are as hands-on as they get in every facet of the sport so many of us love.
Currently tied for third in the Fair Grounds’ owner standings with five wins, success came early in the meet for Earl, Keith, and John. It’s easy to see the ownership side of all this. Their names are there in the programs, their pictures taken in the winner’s circle with the likes of Hyper Piper. Silver King. Rail to Seattle. Special Connection. Half Fast Rose. Alphadoodole and Jax Man. The list is long.
They’ve teamed up with others – Rose Hernandez, Stephen Landry and Bill Langford. They’ve owned separate interests, but together Earl Hernandez, Keith Hernandez, and John Duvieilh have sent their horses to the starting gate 1,462 times, winning 229 of those and amassing $5,174,838 in career earnings. (Together Earl and Keith have had 102 winners out of 599 starters for $2,292,501.) This level of success would impress anyone, but to stop there is to discredit the herculean effort that goes into breeding the horses they run. The struggle and the heartache, the investment and the time, the horses who refused to be haltered and the scars to prove it.
Ask them and they’ll tell you. Keith begins to explain, but John hops in at the third word: “You can’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. That’s just this game.”
A cold weekend in January does not stop these three men. With 35-45 horses usually at the farm, there’s always something that needs to be done, and they take the time to do it themselves. Wooden fences section off the 42.5 acres into pastures for the fillies or the colts, for the athlete simply given time to be a horse outside of the confinement of a stall, for the weanlings, for the yearlings, and a vast stretch for the 16 mares. Huts and hay stations at the ready. Longtime veterinarian at the farm Roger Lowell is there to check the mares. Curiosity brings the duos of colts and the pairs of fillies to the closest fence. The winter wind blows through the insulated workshirts and across the trimmed pastures of rye grass, rustling the horses’ warm coat of soft hair rarely seen at the racetrack. Rosy cheeked, sniffling and serious, the four are hard at work. Keith pulls up in the ATV as John Duvieilh and Lowell walk out of the stall where the last of the broodmares has been checked.
“She’s empty,” John calls out.
There is loss in this sport, you don’t need to look far or long to find it. This was a racehorse that will never enter the starting gate. This was approximately a $10,000 investment gone. The betting public and the weekend fan want to watch a horse run their best race. Jockeys want to ride winners. Investors want a profit. Backside workers, writers, and public handicappers want jobs. All of those hopes and expectations rely upon the foal.
Earlier in the morning, nine 2-year-olds just left, heading to trainer Sam David Jr.’s care. Nearing $20,000,000 in earnings with 1,285 wins, including the Kentucky Oaks with Blushing KD, David needs no introduction. Serving as their trainer since Frank Leggio retired, David has won at a steady clip for the team since 2017. Together they aim for winning the many state-bred races across Louisiana. Delta, Evangeline, Louisiana – between the three downs and Fair Grounds, a robust menu of state-bred races are slated every racing day, and in the Pelican State, more often than not two tracks are running concurrently.
In the house to warm up, stories of how it all began are cued from favorite winners’ photos on the wall, Sunday’s races at Fair Grounds on the television, their promising filly Macee making her first route effort in race three, their insights and laughs energized by a decades-long friendship between Keith and John.
Similar to many who have owned horses, all it takes is one good horse. A horse that makes it all look easy and provides the thrills of a lifetime. Bits A’ Jingle was that horse for Earl and wife Rose Hernandez. In 1983 Rose liked a filly running in a maiden claiming race at Jefferson Downs, the old race track in Kenner just outside New Orleans. She had just shipped in after finishing 9th at Monmouth Park. Rose and Earl made a claim on Bits A’ Jingle, who won that race and her next three. She put another three-win streak together, all in a year’s time, until Earl and Rose decided they had a broodmare, resulting in A Cause to Jingle, My Precious Moment, Bitsyboomamaluvsu, Bitsy’s Diamond Z, and many others down the line.
Earl was hooked. Keith was the next fish looking to take the bait. What started as a claim became the father and son team’s first stallion.
“My dad was getting a little sour at work and I asked ‘you want to claim a horse?’” said Keith Hernandez.
Earl said yes and they agreed $5,000 was the max. When Earl reported back he said that the one they had in mind didn’t go their way, however, they got another. For $12,500.
“‘Have you lost your mind! I don’t want to do it that much,’” Keith remembers telling his dad. “Well that was Rail, he won $90,000 in a blink and broke track records.”
John Duvieihl met Keith through their daughters being in the same class at school. As fate would have it Duvieihl’s horse Ruby Begonia was running at Fair Grounds on the same day as Rail. Both their horses won that day. Nothing like a good omen to quicken a friendship and plant the seed for a partnership.
Friendships deepened and so did their involvement in the sport. They take the next logical step and transition Rail into a stallion at Clear Creek Stud, have success, and get an idea.
“How about we start growing ‘em,” Keith said. “Next thing you know we’re working eight hours every Sunday.”
It takes a deep level of commitment, one might say an obsession, to go to these ends to participate in horse racing. But as many around the race track know and will willingly attest, it also takes luck. Enter the trio’s first broodmare: Wise and Happy.
“This is how bizarre it is,” Keith recounts. “I used to get Bloodhorse magazine, back in those days you’d actually get the magazines—that’s all there was. I looked in the back of the magazine and there was a horse for sale in New York, her name was Wise and Happy. Her sister was a horse named Cagey Exuberance who was a multiple stakes winner and who produced multiple graded stakes winners, so I paid $5,000 and they shipped me the horse down from New York. She went on to produce Unfriendly Koo, another horse named Kookalu. At one point there were $1.9 million worth of horses that came out of her. That is this sport. You never know where the good horses are coming from. You never know.”
Social Misfit, one of the soundest Louisiana-breds you find, was out of Unfriendly Koo: Claimed away at age eight and recently retired as a 13-year-old, Social Misfit was a four-time winner at age 12 who banked nearly $675,000, winning 28 times in his 102-race career. If sound horses don’t thrill you then how about the sounds of the B-52s? One of the farm workers asked if she could name all of Bedazzle Seattle’s babies, and “Love Shack” by The B-52s has been her inspiration. Perhaps you’ve heard of Tin Roof Rusted, Wholeshackshimmies, Funkylittleshack, Knockalittlelouder, names that certainly play well. All these and hundreds of others that have entered the starting gates can be traced back to these three horsemen.
John, Keith, and Earl are as active as stewards of the sport as they are as breeders and owners. Whether it be their involvement in the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Association (HBPA) or the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association (LTBA), their perspectives and actions are shaped by a shared philosophy – to do what is in the best interest of Louisiana racing.
“I’m on the HBPA board for the eighth year,” Keith said. “Now I’m on the LTBA board. I make decisions all the time I know aren’t in my best interest. I make decisions that are in the best interest of racing. We have all kinds of classes of people in Louisiana. You may see one or two allowance races a day and the rest are $5,000 claimers. Those are the people that actually fill the races and make the tracks roll. Everybody has to have a seat at the table and you have to look at the big picture.”
The 2022 crop of foals is on its way. The 2020 2-year-olds are in the process of learning their jobs and will soon be in the hands of their trainers. The older horses are at the track working to prove they belong. In a game that can appear like everything hinges on the efforts of the trainer to prepare each horse between races, the mighty efforts of other horsemen to get foals to the racetrack often goes unnoticed. Earl, Keith and John do what they do to bring Thoroughbreds to the starting gates.
To win, to point to Louisiana Championships, to find the next filly worthy of being one of their select broodmares. From Delta Downs to Fair Grounds, the heritage of Louisiana horse racing depends on the efforts and dedication of people who live the life from sun up to cool down and see the entire game in front of them.