(Jockey Brian Hernandez / Photo Courtesy of Keeneland)

From the Ellis Park Media Team:

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.
“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 Art Collector if 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.”
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.”
Drury assistant Garcia also living dream
(Photo: Assistant trainer Jose Garcia and Art Collector at Skylight Training Center Saturday morning. Courtesy Tommy Drury)
Assistant trainers are one of the most labor-intensive positions in horse racing. But Jose Garcia, who has worked for trainer Tommy Drury for 22 years, has assumed an additional role as groom for Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass winner Art Collector, now one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.
“He’s an amazing horse,” said Garcia, who on Friday said his throat was still sore from cheering through the Keeneland stretch. “I don’t have the words to express how good it is. I thank God and Mr. Bruce (Lunsford) for having the horse with us. I can’t express how happy I am. It’s a dream come true. I’ve been here (in America) 25 years. This is the first time we’ve actually had a horse for the Derby. It feels great.”
Drury said that Art Collector has “a whole entourage of grooms” but that “Jose spends biggest majority of time with him.”
Garcia said he spends at least 45 minutes a day with Art Collector in addition his many duties as an assistant.
“I told the guy that I’d take over,” he said. “Brushes, bandages, everything. The horse is so special to me…. I pretty much do everything with him. I’ve got my help (but) I took over the groom. For me, he’s an unbelievable horse to be around. Tommy said, ‘This horse is a runner.’ The first time I saw him, I said, ‘You know what? You’re right.’ I’ve seen a lot of good horses for Al Stall, Mr. Frankie Brothers, when we were getting them ready. You get that feeling. Now this is the whole package for Tommy. I’m very happy to be around the horse and enjoy, just go one day at a time. (But) we won the Blue Grass and nobody can take that from us.”
Assistant trainers are the glue for a stable of any size because they ensure horses are readied and go to the track for training in an orderly fashion and that the grooms and hot walkers are doing their jobs properly. If someone calls in sick, the assistant might be the one jumping into the stall or picking up the shank to walk a horse.
“Jose is the backbone of the operation,” Drury said. “He’s been my assistant going on 22 years. He practically lives with Art Collector. He grooms him, he walks him. He doesn’t like to let other people get around him, to be honest with you. It’s great because it allows me to continue to do my job and know that Art Collector is in good hands. I’ve got 59 other horses here to worry about, and to make sure every horse gets treated the same. Jose allows me to do that. I couldn’t do it without him.”
Necker Island to Ellis Park Derby
Necker Island, who finished third in Indiana Grand’s Grade 3 Indiana Derby after being claimed for $100,000, is being pointed for the $100,000 Ellis Park Derby on Aug. 9, trainer Chris Hartman said.
The day that Wayne Scherr, Raymond Daniels and Jackie Rojas put up the money to claim Necker Island, the son of 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun finished fourth of four in an allowance/optional claiming race at Churchill Downs. But the top two finishers that day were future Grade 2 Blue Grass winner Art Collector and Indiana Derby winner Shared Sense. Third-place Finnick the Fierce was seventh in the Blue Grass but before that was third in the Arkansas Derby and second in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club at 87-1 odds, edging current Kentucky Derby favorite Tiz the Law that day.
“It was a really good group of horses,” Hartman said.