Brian Hernandez reacts after winning the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Fort Larned in 2012. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)
On Nov. 3, 2012, I received the best birthday present a 27-year-old can imagine. I enjoyed the ride of a lifetime when Fort Larned, overlooked at 9-to-1, led at every call to win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It was the biggest victory of my career by far, and it is hard to put into words what it meant. The dream of winning the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown events in the spring, big Grade 1 races that fill the summer calendar and the Breeders’ Cup races in the fall, this is what drives me and every other rider to wake up early each morning to work horses and to develop relationships with owners and trainers that lead to opportunities to show what you can do with a live horse on a big stage.
My career was going along fairly well before Fort Larned and last year’s Classic came along. But the shot owner Janis Whitham and trainer Ian Wilkes gave me allowed me to take my business to another level. It boosted my confidence and, believe me, that is conveyed to your mounts. If you are the least bit unsure, they pick up on that as well and it can make them hesitant at a critical time.
I am more confident than ever before that I will make the right call in big spots. Clients are seeing that and they are giving me more consideration for major races. They know nothing is too big for me because there is no bigger stage than the Breeders’ Cup and the Classic.
I can’t say everything went exactly as planned on the way back to the Classic. Horse racing is never that simple. Fort Larned was so eager to get going after a well-deserved rest that followed last year’s Classic that he stumbled so badly at the start of the Gulfstream Handicap on March 9 that I hit the ground. He was not up to speed for the Oaklawn Handicap in mid-April and we were disappointed to finish fifth.
For Larned was back to himself for the Stephen Foster Handicap on June 15 at Churchill Downs. We took the lead at the start and there was no looking back. The only issue was how much we would win by. It turned out to be 6 ¼ lengths and everyone associated with the horse could not have been happier.
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The public took notice and we went off as the favorite as he looked to repeat in the Whitney Handicap. Nothing went our way when the gates opened and we came home fifth. We would have been one of the top choices for the Woodward Stakes at the end of the Saratoga meet but Ian felt the horse was not quite right and he decided against that spot.
That is why you love to work for trainers such as Ian. They make sure everything is right before they run. If not, they have the patience to wait, knowing another race will always come along. His patience was rewarded when we shot to the front in the Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs on Sept. 28 and did not look back. I will admit he was a bit tired toward the end of that mile-and-an-eighth race. That just told me he needed the race and will benefit greatly from it.
One of my biggest decisions will come at the start of the Classic. My horse has a ton of early speed. How much of it I choose to use will probably depend on the actions of Mike Smith, who has the heavy favorite, Game On Dude. When Game On Dude did not rush to the front last year, we were able to establish a quick lead. With 3-year-old Moreno in there this time, I doubt it will work out the same way. But my horse is versatile and, after riding him for nine consecutive starts, he is very responsive to me.
Me and Fort Larned, we know each other well. I can tell from the way he is acting that he senses something big is about to happen. He can tell from Ian’s training regimen, and he is doing everything asked. If Fort Larned is at the top of his game, I may have an early present on the eve of my 28th birthday.
2012 BREEDERS' CUP CLASSIC