Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent racing personalities for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby. The opening leg of the Triple Crown will be run on May 6 at Churchill Downs.
This week, he talks to jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., who won significant prep races when he took the Louisiana Derby aboard Girvin at Fair Grounds and the Sam F. Davis Stakes with McCraken at Tampa Bay Downs. He chose McCraken, owned by Janis Whitham and trained by Ian Wilkes, as his Derby mount after they finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Hernandez, 31, born in Louisiana as the son of a jockey, received the Eclipse Award as the outstanding apprentice in 2004. He earned the biggest win of his career when he piloted Fort Larned in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for the Whitham family and Wilkes in 2012.
Hernandez gained his first Derby mount last year when Tom’s Ready finished 12th. McCraken swept his first three starts at Churchill Downs and looms as a key Derby contender.
PEDULLA: What was it like to ride in your first Derby last year?
HERNANDEZ: It was everything you’d expect it to be. It was a wonderful experience.
PEDULLA: How difficult was the decision between Girvin and McCraken?
HERNANDEZ: It was extremely difficult. It goes back to my prior relationships with Ian and the Whithams and those guys sticking by me with Fort Larned. They had every right to get a big-name jockey to ride in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and they stuck by me.
PEDULLA: Are they similar horses or very different?
HERNANDEZ: That’s what made the decision extremely difficult. They are very similar horses. They are both very, very athletic horses, and I don’t think you’ve seen the best of either one of them yet.
PEDULLA: Can you talk about the job Ian Wilkes has done with McCraken?
HERNANDEZ: He’s done a fabulous job. The biggest thing is he’s listening to his horse. He’s letting his horse tell him what the next move will be.
PEDULLA: Was the Blue Grass result disappointing?
HERNANDEZ: Any time they don’t win, you’re always disappointed because you want to win every time. But, after watching the race a few times, it was actually a really good race. He was a little fresh coming out of the eight weeks since the Sam F. Davis. I think he got the right kind of race out of the Blue Grass that we were looking for.
PEDULLA: He’s undefeated at Churchill Downs. How important is that?
HERNANDEZ: That’s always in the back of your mind. The good thing about Churchill is it’s our home field. We’ll get up at our house that morning and go to the local racetrack and participate in the Derby, and it’s the same thing with McCraken. He’s getting to run out of his own stall, so it’s very important.
PEDULLA: How important is the draw going to be?
HERNANDEZ: It’s going to be very important. With a 20-horse field, you want to get a post position where you’re not going to get bounced around.
PEDULLA: Is there an ideal spot you’d like for McCraken during the Derby?
HERNANDEZ: After the draw, we’ll look at the race, Ian and myself, and we’ll try to find just a few horses to follow that will get us to certain points in the race. The biggest thing is staying out of our horse’s way and letting him run his race.
PEDULLA: What would it mean to you and to your career to win the Derby?
HERNANDEZ: The Kentucky Derby is the ultimate race you want to win. It’s a career goal for any rider. It’s life-changing if you can be fortunate enough to win it.