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After Toyota Blue Grass Stakes victory, Hernandez focuses on Kentucky Derby aboard Art Collector

Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. has won America’s richest horse race. Now the Ellis Park regular has his sights on America’s most revered race, the Kentucky Derby.

That long-held dream took an important step forward when Hernandez guided Bruce Lunsford’s Art Collector to a 3 1/2-length victory over the talented filly Swiss Skydiver in Keeneland’s $600,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on July 11. The triumph in the Grade 2 stakes was the first in a graded stakes for trainer Tommy Drury, a close friend of Hernandez. Drury has trained horses for 30 years, but a large part of his business has been getting 2-year-olds and horses coming off layoffs ready for other trainers.

Hernandez has won a slew of graded stakes races, capped by Fort Larned’s score in 2012 in the then-$5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, North America’s most lucrative race. He’s only had two cracks at the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, in his adopted hometown of Louisville: finishing 12th in 2016 on Tom’s Ready and eighth in 2017 with McCraken.

Had the Derby been in its usual First Saturday in May time slot, Hernandez would not be in this position with Art Collector.

Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. has his sights set on the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5. (Coady Photography)

“The most special thing about it is to be on this trail with Tommy,” Hernandez said. “The Blue Grass being his first graded-stakes win meant a lot. I’ve ridden at every little racetrack in the country, I think, for Tommy. Indiana, River Downs, Beulah, Ellis and now to win the Blue Grass for him is a special moment. Being friends like we are, it’s more special to have this good of a horse. We’ve always talked about ‘Man, if we could ever get a really good one like this, the trip it would put us on.’ It’s meant a lot.

“You’re always thinking about the Derby. Every time we work these young 2-year-olds, you’re always thinking, ‘Hey, maybe this will be our next Derby mount.’ Hopefully one day it will be the Derby winner. I’ve never won it, so I couldn’t tell you what it takes to win it. I know just from riding it the few times we have, it does take a special horse. The year we went into it with McCraken, we went in thinking we had a really big chance. And we kind of lost our chance at the start that day. That just shows you how difficult a race it is.”

Drury said that if Art Collector needs another race before the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, it will be the $200,000 Ellis Park Derby, a 1 1/8-mile race on Aug. 9. The winner receives 50 points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, enough to virtually secure a spot in the 20-horse field. But that’s not an issue with Art Collector, who earned 100 in the Blue Grass.

Hernandez, the 2012 Ellis Park meet titlist, has ridden Art Collector in a race five times, including the past three when the colt won at seven furlongs, 1 1/16 miles and the Blue Grass’ 1 1/8 miles — all by open lengths.

“He’s just one of those rare, very intelligent horses that everything put in front him, he’s jumped through all the hoops,” the jockey said. “He seems to be improving with each start.

“He’s a top 3-year-old right now, and it’s a different year with this whole Derby-in-September time. He was one of the late developers. It’s a lot of fun, kind of hard to put into words. You’re going into the Derby with one of the favorites, and you’ve just got to be excited about it.”

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Lunsford and Drury are lifelong Louisvillians, while the 34-year-old Hernandez has lived in the Louisville area since he began riding full-time in 2004. That’s the year the Louisiana product won the Eclipse Award as North America’s outstanding apprentice jockey.

“I think we’ve lived in Louisville now just about as long as I did in Louisiana,” he said. “I guess now we’re just Kentuckians. That’s another fun part of the journey, being able to say, ‘Hey, Tommy’s from Louisville here, and Bruce is as well. It’s all Kentucky guys. It just goes to show you how strong the Kentucky program is getting now. We’re one of the top circuits in the country.”

Hernandez has been a shining example that riding at Ellis Park in the summer isn’t a detriment to riding in the sport’s biggest races (although this year, there’s the COVID-19 wrinkle of tracks such as Saratoga closing its doors to outside jockeys).

The jockey won his first Grade 1 victory in Saratoga’s 2012 Whitney Handicap with the Ian Wilkes-trained Fort Larned, then rode at Ellis Park the next day. Three months later, the jockey and Fort Larned won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

“It’s always worked well for us being at Ellis,” he said. “Like last year, we picked up a really good 2-year-old in Fighting Seabee. He broke his maiden at Ellis and in his very next start he won the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga. And just having that relationship with clients who run at Ellis during the summertime, we do get the opportunity to run at places like Saratoga and all the stakes out of town — most of the years.”

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