Jockey Juan Hernandez makes 1,000th start at Del Mar, but admits he’s ‘still learning’ on the track
Jockey won 25 percent of his starts last summer at Del Mar: ‘I wanted to make good. But I never expected this good’
Juan Hernandez loved being the big fish in a small pond.
In late 2019 and early 2020, Hernandez was the run-away leading jockey at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. And even though many of his rivals and associates encouraged Hernandez to take on the challenge of riding in the bigger tracks in Southern California, Hernandez balked.
For one, he had come south once before in 2012 and the results weren’t spectacular.
“And my family was happy in Northern California,” said Hernandez.
Then the unexpected happened. The pond dried up. The COVID-19 pandemic hit and Golden Gate Fields stopped racing.
Hernandez, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, had no work.
“When I heard they were going to race at Del Mar, I packed my bags,” said Hernandez. “I didn’t know what was there for me. But even if I was just exercising horses in the morning, I’d be riding.”
What’s happened since has surprised even the 31-year-old Hernandez.
“When I came back here in 2020, I was expecting to do better than I did in 2012,” said Hernandez, who won 10 races during his first trip to Del Mar. “I wanted to make good. But I never expected this good.”
Hernandez is the defending jockey champion of Del Mar’s featured summer meeting. He was overtaken by Flavien Prat on the final day to finish second in the fall meeting at Del Mar. And he has swept the winter and spring meeting titles at Santa Anita for each of the past two seasons.
When Prat moved his base east to ride in New York and Kentucky, Hernandez became the rider to beat in Southern California.
Since he returned to Del Mar in the summer of 2020, Hernandez has 161 wins with earnings approaching $11.5 million. Last summer, he won 49 of his 198 starts. He won 18 featured stakes races at Del Mar in 2020, including two Grade Is — the Del Mar Futurity (Cave Rock) and the Hollywood Derby (Speaking Scout). Last Sunday he celebrated his 1,000th start at Del Mar.
“When I was here in 2012, I did OK,” said Hernandez. “But to be honest, I wasn’t ready. I was too young. I decided to go back to Golden Gate. I went back and regrouped. I started riding better. My opportunity came with the pandemic. The pandemic forced me to make a move. And it was a good move.
“The people at Golden Gate had more confidence in me than maybe I did. They told me all the time, ‘make the move.’ I came at the right time.
“And I got lucky. Some trainers like Craig Lewis and John Sadler saw me working horses and gave me some early opportunities to ride. And a good agent (Craig O’Bryan) joined me. I knew it was going to be tough. There are a lot of good riders here. You never know until you start winning races if you can win.”
Hernandez says he’s an unfinished book and has no idea where the next chapter might take him. Maybe to the east. Hopefully to bigger races like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“I’m still learning,” said Hernandez. “I love watching other riders and see how they handle different situations. I use a lot of things that I see. I’m riding good horses for good trainers. I just want to give the horse the opportunity to win. What I like doing is riding a horse in the morning then racing him in the afternoon. There’s a bond.”
And he says he has a bond with Del Mar.
“I raced a decade at Golden Gate and was very happy,” Hernandez said. But Del Mar is where it took off for me … from being better as a rider to success. Del Mar is a beautiful place. Everyone loves it. Riders can hear everyone coming out of far turn. It’s a great feeling … really nice feeling to hear the crowd. As a jockey and horseman, we appreciate the support.”
But Hernandez hasn’t forgotten his roots. His father was a jockey in Mexico and taught Juan to ride. Then there was almost the decade he spent at Golden Gate Fields, which is scheduled to close before the end of the year.
“I am really sad about that,” said Hernandez. “Sad for the people depending on those jobs. I have a lot of good memories. Golden Gate is where I learned a lot of things, like riding on the dirt.”
But the move away from Golden Gate expanded Hernandez’s career, although his first name still appears in three different versions – Juan, J.J. and Juan Jose.
“That doesn’t matter to me,” said Hernandez, who was then asked what his mother called him?
“Juan ... I guess call me Juan.”
• Hernandez didn’t have such a good day Thursday aboard previously unbeaten Ceiling Crusher in the $175,000 The Fleet Treat for 3-year-old Cal Bred fillies. The 1-to-5 favorite ran third, 2 1/4 lengths behind winner Big Pond ($9.80 for Ramon Vazquez).
“I missed the break,” explained Hernandez. “She got bumped. But no excuses. She just didn’t do her thing today.”
“She’s fine,” said Leondro Mora, the assistant trainer for Doug O’Neill. “There was a lot of bumping and that’s how horses who like to win by many lengths get beat. And that’s the first time she’s ever had dirt in her face. It’s a good lesson.”
• Ceiling Crusher had won her first four starts, all under Hernandez. Her last two wins were by a combined 32 lengths.
“I liked the way this race set up for us,” said Tim Yakteen, trainer of Big Pond. She was gifted as a 2-year-old. We had to give her a break. She showed up today. This was a big step.”
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