Newcomer Rafael Hernandez Hoping for Impactful Debut Meet

Sep 12, 2014 John Cox

Ranked in the Top 20 North American jockeys by wins over the last three years, Rafael Hernandez moved his tack to Kentucky last week hoping to make an impact on the local racing scene.

A native of San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, Hernandez was inspired by his uncle, former jockey Heriberto “Herbie” Rivera Jr., to start riding at a young age.

“My uncle Herbie used to be a jockey,” Hernandez said of the 3,100-race winner. “He rode a lot at Thistledown and at Tampa Bay (Downs). When he stopped riding (in 2000) he became a steward and now he works for the Jockey’s Guild. He got me hooked; he taught me a lot and I liked watching him ride. I got my start in Tampa, too.”

The 29-year-old, a winner of more than 1,800 races since he began riding in 2004, made his September Meet debut Sunday, where he finished second aboard Red Neck Song for trainer Wayne Catalano. Hernandez said that trainer Wesley Ward was his gateway to the Twin Spires.

“I won seven out of eight races one day at Fairmount Park,” Hernandez said. “That day, I got a call from Wesley to see if I wanted to come ride for him, and I said yes; so here we are.”

Hernandez had three mounts on Friday’s card at Churchill Downs (he won the first race aboard the Ward-trainer Mountain Vow), will ride five at Kentucky Downs on Saturday and will finish out the weekend with one mount at Churchill on Sunday.

When asked about his biggest accomplishment to date, Hernandez replied “I haven’t won too many big races; I think I’ve won maybe four with $100,000-purses, so not that many. Coming from the cheaper tracks, they don’t have as many big purses. But I have won the riding title at Fairmount Park seven times.”

With two young kids back at home, Hernandez has his hands full when away from the racetrack.

“I’m a family guy,” Hernandez said. “I have two young kids, one is three and the other is five. They live in St. Louis with my wife, so that keeps me busy when I’m not riding.”

While the Puerto Rico native mentioned his uncle as his main influence, he listed Joel Rosario and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez as some riders he looks up to.

“I’ve always looked up to my uncle,” Hernandez said. “Other than him, I like watching Joel Rosario and Johnny V. They are some of the best.”

While Hernandez has ridden at several tracks, he says the horses are the biggest difference between Churchill Downs and his home track of Fairmount Park.

“I’ve ridden at Tampa Bay, Fairmount, Aqueduct, Pimlico, Hawthorne, Laurel and now Kentucky Downs and Churchill Downs,” Hernandez said. “The biggest difference at Churchill is the horses; there’s just a better quality of them here. It’s a big track with bigger purses, so hopefully I can make a name for myself here. I’ve liked it so far.”

Hernandez seemed modest when mentioning his future goals, with an emphasis on simply improving with each mount.

“My goal is just to get better and better with each race,” Hernandez said. “Breeders’ Cup and the Kentucky Derby are dreams for everybody though, so any of those would be nice one day. Who knows? I just want to keep working hard, and that’s it.”

In addition to Mountain Vow, Hernandez will ride Citiqueen in the second and Speedy Girl in the seventh, both for trainer William “Buff” Bradley.


Willis D. Horton’s 3-year-old champion Will Take Charge has returned to Churchill Downs after spending the summer in Saratoga and his Hall of Fame conditioner D. Wayne Lukas was very pleased with his latest work.

“The work was excellent,” Lukas said. “It was one of his best on this track; I was really pleased with it.”

Will Take Charge breezed five furlongs in 1:00.40 on Wednesday morning under the Twin Spires, the fastest of 21 other workers at the distance.

The 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song opted to skip the Aug. 30 Woodward (Grade I) at Saratoga, and is pointing to the Sept. 27 Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI) for his next start, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Nov. 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI), a race in which he was beaten by a nose a year ago.

“I said before he needed a breather; so I stand by my decision and we expect him to come up big in these next two,” Lukas said. “He’s still right on track for the Jockey Club Gold Cup and everything has been good with him.”

Will Take Charge’s last start came as a third-place effort in the Whitney (GI) at Saratoga on Aug. 2, where he was ridden by jockey Luis Saez. While Saez has been on Will Take Charge for four of his six starts this year, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens rode him in the other two. Lukas confirmed Friday morning that Saez is expected to have the mount for the Jockey Club Gold Cup.


W. S. Farish’s Interest Free, fifth in the Gardenia Handicap (Grade III) in her last start, is looking for her first stakes win in Saturday’s $100,000-added Open Mind under the Twin Spires.

Trained by Neil Howard, the 4-year-old daughter of Exchange Rate will face six other fillies and mares as the 3-1 second choice on the morning line.

“She’s done well,” Howard said. “I thought her last race was good, especially running against the kind of fillies she was running against. They didn’t go that quick up front if I recall. So it was a tough race but I think she ran OK and she’s done very well since then.”

Howard expressed a confidence in Interest Free’s ability to handle the track at Churchill Downs, as well as handling the cut-back from a mile in her last start to six furlongs in the Open Mind.

“For the most part, she likes Churchill and her races here have been solid,” Howard said. “I’ve had a hard time deciding exactly what she needs. I think she’s in the middle distance-wise; seven eighths (of a mile) to a mile is probably more suitable for her but with the long stretch here at Churchill I expect her to handle six furlongs well.”

Interest Free has raced at Churchill twice, winning once last May and finishing third once in an optional claiming race at the Louisville track during the Spring Meet. Howard also thinks the addition of blinkers will help Interest Free early on in Saturday’s race.

“I’m putting blinkers on her for this race, just maybe to keep her from getting too far back early. She’s trained well with the blinkers on, but you really never know how they’ll do with blinkers until they actually race with them.”

While commending the filly’s consistence, Howard also mentioned that sometimes her biggest challenge comes from within.

“She’s got a good demeanor; she’s a very easy keeper and easy filly to train,” Howard said. “She’s been fairly consistent, but sometimes she’s her own worst enemy with her running style, she definitely depends on a little help up front.

“There’s not a whole lot of speed in there, but again she’s trained well and I’m hoping the blinkers will help her a little bit with that.”

Saturday’s featured Open Mind is the ninth of 10 races with an approximate post time of 4:55 p.m. ET.


Football Watch Party / $100,000 Open Mind

Saturday, Sept. 13, 12:30 p.m. Kick Off

If you can’t make it to Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va., the next best place to watch Saturday’s ACC showdown between the University of Louisville Cardinals and Virginia Cavaliers is Churchill Downs.

The legendary Louisville racetrack has a 10-race program and will simultaneously stage a Football Watch Party for U of L fans in its 30,000-square-foot outdoor Plaza adjacent to the saddling paddock.

The ACC Network’s telecast will be shown uninterrupted with volume on the giant 16’ x 20’ Plaza video screen, and portions of the game will air on the massive Big Board between races.

Bleacher seating is being added to the Plaza and there’ll be a tailgate-like atmosphere, complete with cornhole and other games, a Plaza Grill and game-time drink specials – cold $2 Bud/Bud Light, $3 Stella Artois, $1 Pepsi products and bottled water. 

College students with a current student ID will be admitted free of charge. Paid general admission is $3.

Gates open at 11:30 a.m., the Louisville game starts at 12:30 p.m. and the first race is 12:45 p.m. The featured racing event is the $100,000-added Open Mind, a six-furlong sprint for fillies and mares that goes as Race 9 at approximately 4:55 p.m.

Family Adventure Day presented by Kroger

Sunday, Sept 14, 11:30 a.m. Gates Open

Sunday is Family Adventure Day Presented by Kroger at Churchill Downs and there’s a surplus of activities for kids of all ages and the entire family.

In anticipation of the Belle of Louisville’s looming 100th Birthday Bash, Churchill Downs will pay special tribute to the steamboat by transforming its Plaza into a family-fun-filled carnival atmosphere featuring a 20-foot replica of the Belle of Louisville, a photo station where families can have their picture taken with the Captain of the Belle of Louisville Mark Doty, and a Belle of Louisville activity tent. The highlight of the day will be the selection of three families to participate in the Belle of Louisville Great Steamboat Race, with the race taking place on the Churchill Downs turf course. Each family will race carrying a large photograph cutout of the Belle of Louisville. As the sponsor of Family Adventure Day, Kroger will mark the celebration by serving up birthday cupcakes to the first 1,000 children.

Activities include:

  • Belle of Louisville Centennial Celebration Activity including Belle replica float and a meet-and-greet with Captain Mark Doty
  • Belle of Louisville Great Steamboat Race featuring three families between races on the turf course
  • 1,000 free Belle of Louisville birthday cupcakes, courtesy of Kroger
  • Stick Horse Races in the Paddock
  • Petting Zoo
  • Pony Rides
  • Themed Inflatables
  • Cornhole
  • Video Game Truck
  • Interactive Sports Games
  • Nine-hole Miniature Golf Course
  • Hula Hoop Contest
  • Sidewalk Chalk
  • Junior Jockey Club Bingo
  • Kosair Children’s Hospital Activity
  • Kentucky Derby Museum Activities: a meet and greet with the museum’s resident miniature horse Winston, story time and printmaking crafts.
  • Churchill Charlie’s Corner (children under 4)
  • Kona Ice Truck
  • DJ music from Plaza Stage
  • Strolling Magician (1-3 p.m.)
  • Face Painters (1-5 p.m.)
  • Churchill Charlie Walk Around & Dance Party (2-3 p.m.)
  • Family-friendly Pricing at Concessions

Participation in the Family Adventure Day activities requires the purchase of a Family Pavilion Ticket which is $10 for adults or $5 per child and includes gate admission and access to family seating on the Grandstand Terrace. Adults can save $5 by buying wristbands in advance online at Gates open at 11:30 a.m. and the first race is at 12:45 p.m. General admission is $3 and reserved box seats are $10.

The new Grandstand Pavilion (including Sections 326-328) has been designated as a family-friendly area for the day where guests can gather for group dining and seating to watch the races. It also allows convenient access to family activities in the Plaza. A Family Pavilion wristband is required to use the area and take part in all Family Adventure Day activities.

Family Adventure Day supports Kosair Children’s Hospital with Churchill Downs donating $1 for each person in attendance at the track. 

Churchill Downs gates open Sunday at 11:30 a.m. Post time for the first race is 12:45 p.m. and the last race runs at 5:27 p.m.

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