IN HIS PRIME AND ON THE RISE AT AGE 30, JUAN HERNANDEZ & VETERAN AGENT CRAIG O’BRYAN ENTER CLOSING WEEKEND ON TOP WITH 100 WINS
ARCADIA, Calif. (June 15, 2022)–A month shy of the two-year mark as a full-time rider in Southern California, Juan Hernandez, a 30-year-year old native of Veracruz, Mexico who had been a dominant force at Golden Gate Fields, is currently on a tremendous roll with veteran agent Craig O’Bryan as Santa Anita’s leading jockey heading into closing weekend on Friday.
With three racing days remaining, Hernandez has 100 wins through 73 racing days and perhaps most importantly, he has 22 stakes victories, six clear of the now-departed Flavien Prat. In June of 2020, Hernandez, who had just won 135 races at Golden Gate, 77 clear of his nearest competitor, made the decision to relocate to Southern California on a full-time basis. Married with two young boys, Hernandez contacted O’Bryan, who had been idle for several months at the suggestion of Golden Gate-based trainer Blaine Wright.
With 50 years of on the job experience that includes success with Hall of Famers Eddie Delahoussaye, Gary Stevens and Alex Solis as well as a number of other riders, O’Bryan and Hernandez hit the ground running in the summer of 2020 at Del Mar and if Santa Anita’s 2021/22 Winter Spring Meet is any indication, they’re just getting warmed up.
The son of the late George O’Bryan, a legendary agent who worked through five decades dating back to the 1950s for Hall of Famers such as Johnny Adams, Ralph Neves, Manuel Ycaza, Laffit Pincay, Jr. and Donald Pierce, Craig O’Bryan, not surprisingly, has an instinctive feel for the business and relationships that produce live mounts–with regularity.
Q. Before we address the success Juan and you are having, I know as a kid, you often accompanied your dad to the racetrack in the mornings and afternoons. Can you describe the impact he had on you and on the way you’ve conducted your business all these years?
A. He was a man’s man. His word was his bond. He earned his nickname, ‘Black Heart,’ when he took Manny Ycaza back to New York (circa 1961). The other agents told him, ‘Don’t get unpacked, you won’t last long.’ Well, Ycaza lasted 10 years as the number one rider on the east coast. As a kid, you just accumulate (knowledge), almost through osmosis. It’s just being around somebody as good as my dad was, it has to have a positive impact. The same thing with Scotty McClellan. His dad, Chick was a tremendous agent and we were also fortunate to be around some other great, great agents. Guys like Harry Silbert, Ivan Puhich, George Hollander, Vince DeGregory, they were all in action when I first came around and they all made you better.
Q. Juan Hernandez has now established himself as Santa Anita’s top rider. In addition to having tremendous ability, he appears to be the complete package. In addition to having tremendous ability, his temperament is even, he’s polite and hard working. He was born on a farm in Veracruz and he pretty much grew up in racing. What’s he been like to work for?
A. Next month, it’ll be two years since he came down from Golden Gate, When he came down here to ride full-time, the first week at Del Mar, my wife and I had Juan, his brother Jonathan and (jockey) Ricky Gonzalez over for dinner. When they left, Sharon said “All three of those boys, you can tell, were really well raised.” That foundation carries you a long way. When I tell someone Juan is going to work a horse at 6:30, he’s not there at 6:35, he’s there at 6:20. He’s very professional. As far as riding, he’s been tremendous, obviously. I know Prat was in front when he left a couple months ago (April 3, 72-53), but Juan beat him this past fall at Del Mar (17-14) and for him to have won 22 stakes and a 100 races here at this meet is just phenomenal.
People of course notice that he’s a strong finisher and that he wins a lot of races from behind, but he’s tremendous out of the gate as well. Bob Baffert came up to me a little over a year ago and he said he wanted to start using Juan a little more. He said, “That jock’s really, really good out of the gate.” When Juan’s in front, much like Eddie and Shoemaker and some of those guys…Those jocks are awfully tough to get by. He’s quiet on a horse, a great judge of pace and from the quarter pole home, he wins. Look at the prices a lot of his horses have paid since he came down here. He wins on the dirt. He wins on turf, he wins long, short, stakes, claiming horses and he goes out to the paddock with a fresh approach every single time he gets a leg up.
Q. You’ve had some outstanding riders in addition to Eddie D., Stevens and Solis. Guys like Paco Mena, David Flores and Tyler Baze. Beyond getting live mounts, what makes a top rider?
A. Good question. Everybody says the best riders are strong and they’re good finishers. I would say that in any sport, the guys that are a little smarter are a little better. You think Tom Brady is the most athletic guy? Probably not. But he’s awfully smart and I think just being smart, on the track and off the track, too. The top riders know what to do…You know, Gary Stevens, if you look back, some of those guys, like Shoemaker, they seldom got in trouble.
Juan doesn’t get in trouble very often. These kinds of guys are smart on the track and everywhere else. Juan’s a smart guy. He gets it, day in and day out. And on top of it, he’s a very nice person. He reacts well to everything, he doesn’t get flustered and that helps. He’s always calm, cool and collected, much like Eddie in that respect.
Q. Juan won the Grade I American Oaks with a filly trained by Michael McCarthy named Queen Goddess on opening day, Dec. 26 and from there, he’s been remarkably consistent. You won four stakes at this meet with Craig Lewis’ Brickyard Ride and you won four stakes on May 28 for four different trainers. How amazing is all of this?
A. Pretty amazing, but this jock is amazing. The Oaks on opening day got shifted from the grass to a wet/fast track and that filly really wasn’t expected to do well. Juan put her on the lead and she was gone. A mile and a quarter and she pays $31.20. Brickyard Ride is just an incredibly fast horse that Juan gets along with. I’ve got a great relationship with Craig and we ride a lot for him because he wants Juan whenever he can get him. What Brickyard Ride did at this meet, winning four stakes, was phenomenal and I really want to thank Craig and the owner, Mr. Pais.
That day we won four stakes, Juan won five races total. All of those horses figured, but again, Juan showed his versatility. He won the Crystal Water for Dean Pederson going a mile on the grass (Carmelita’s Man). He won the Thor’s Echo for Steve Miyadi going six furlongs (Desmond Doss). He won the Melair going a mile and a sixteenth on dirt for John Sadler (Big Switch) and he won the Fran’s Valentine for Phil D’Amato going a mile on turf (Alice Marble).
Q. Have you ever had another jock win four stakes in one day?
A. One other time. Gary did it here on one of those Breeders’ Cup prep days in 2013, the year Mucho Macho Man won the Classic. To be fair, we never used to have these colossal, multiple stakes days 30 or 35 years ago. Very seldom did we have more than one stake a day.
Q. You got your 22nd stakes win with Under the Stars last Sunday in the Grade II Summertime Oaks. Juan had never ridden her, but he obviously knew quite a bit about her?
A. Yes, we had been in communication with Sean (McCarthy) and he said they had backed off her a little bit and that they’d been schooling her a lot. Juan had watched her previous races and as you saw, he rode a great race. You couldn’t ride a filly any better than that. He put her in the race out of the gate, but then he sat just off her stablemate (Ganadora) and when it was time to go, Lady T couldn’t catch her.
Q. Juan is currently ranked ninth nationally by money-won with nearly $6 million and 10th nationally coming into this Friday with 100 wins. Given the fact that we’re operating with fewer race dates, can he move up the ladder in either one of the categories?
A. He’s only been here, it’ll be two years in July and he wins 22 stakes at this meet, so there’s no telling. He’s riding for all the right people and truthfully, he sure doesn’t shy away from the moment. He brings it when the big money’s down, that’s pretty obvious…Riding three days a week as opposed to four and five back east, it’s a challenge, but purse-wise, we have our best meet coming up, so with a good Del Mar, yes, he could move up the ladder.
With entries for Saturday being taken Wednesday morning at Santa Anita, Hernandez appears to be well armed, as he’ll ride impressive first-out maiden winner Tahoma, a son of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify, for Doug O’Neill in the $100,000 Fasig-Tipton Futurity. He’s also named to ride the multiple graded stakes-winning filly Private Mission for Sean McCarthy in the Grade II Santa Maria Stakes on Saturday.
According to O’Bryan, Hernandez is scheduled to ride all three closing day stakes on Sunday: Avenue for trainer Michael McCarthy in the Grade III American Stakes at one mile on turf, Tarantino for Ed Moger in the Grade III San Juan Capistrano at a mile and three quarters down the hillside turf and French-bred Neige Blanche, a two-time graded stakes winner at the meet for Leonard Powell in the $100,000 Possibly Perfect for fillies and mares at a mile and one quarter on turf.