Juan Hernandez: Dreams Can Come True

Southern California’s leading jockey is living his boyhood dream thanks to talent, hard work, and a series of ‘sliding doors’ moments.

Juan Hernandez: Dreams Can Come True

Southern California’s leading jockey is living his boyhood dream thanks to talent, hard work, and a series of ‘sliding doors’ moments.

A SEVEN-YEAR OLD BOY stands beside the starting gate at a backwater track in Veracruz, Mexico as two horses and their jockeys are loaded in for a match race. One of the riders is the boy’s father, doing what he does to earn money for his family, racing quarter horses at exhilarating speed.

The boy watches his hero with keen wonder, and then it happens: the awakening crash of the barriers, the loud shouts of the riders, the sudden pounding of hooves, the flash of colours, the raw power of the horses all at once ignite his senses like a spark hitting the powder in a Fourth of July firecracker.   

“I was standing right by the gate and they broke so fast,” Juan Hernandez recalls. “That was the first time my dad took me to see him race and when I saw them break out of the gate that fast, I knew, I said to myself, I want to be a jockey, I want to be like my dad, I want to break out of the gate like that!”

Hernandez is now 32, he is the top rider in Southern California, leading the standings at Del Mar and Santa Anita the past couple of years, having previously dominated the Northern California circuit. He has ridden more than 2,650 winners from more than 12,200 rides in the United States for earnings of US$85.8 million; in 2023 he ranked 11th nationally for both wins and earnings.

His profile continues to rise: this year he has picked up Grade 1 wins ‘back east’ for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, and in the ‘Far East’ the Japan Racing Association (JRA) has tried to snag him for their annual World All-Star Jockeys competition last year and this, with a final decision for this year’s event yet to be made. 

Jockey Juan Hernandez
JUAN HERNANDEZ / Santa Anita Park // 2022 /// Photo by Keith Birmingham

But it all could have been different if not for the hand of fate, serendipity, divine providence, old fashioned luck or whatever you want to call the events that took him from an off-radar apprenticeship in Mexico City to the heights of Grade 1 glory in the US.

First came the break that rocketed him up the pecking order in Mexico, then came the ‘side door’ route to the American dream, and then the spur that pushed him to make the move away from Northern California.

Where It Started

Hernadez has known horses for most of his life. His father, Jose Trinidad Hernandez, moved from provincial Veracruz to Mexico City to pursue his own dream of racing Quarter Horses. There he met and married Olivia Santana but the couple moved back to Veracruz where Juan was born.

At age ‘five or six’ he began going with Jose to the barns to see the horses, and then came that day he first saw his dad race. 

“I was cheering for him and he won, then after that we took a little picture with the owners and I just didn’t want to go to school any more, I wanted to go to the ranch and work with him,” he says.

His mother made sure he stayed in school, but his weekends were spent with his father and uncles, helping with the horses. Then, at age 10, the family moved again to Mexico City where his father started back working at the race track.

“My dad was galloping horses over there,” he says. “When I saw that big track for the first time, the Hipodromo de las Americas, and all the horses, I was like ‘Hey, I want to be here,’ it stimulated me even more to wanting to be a jockey; it was like I fell in love all over again when I saw that place.”

He graduated high school at 14 and the dream began: a job at the ‘Hipodromo.’ He started at the bottom, and, with no apprentice school, he learned by watching, listening, and doing.

Taking Opportunities

He was 16 when the main stable’s trainer Mario Diaz, who went on to work as an assistant for Steve Asmussen, asked him if he was ready to ride in his first race. He wasn’t sure; his dad wasn’t sure; he decided to give it a go.

“I wasn’t ready,” he admits. “I was leading and then I opened off the rail and a horse came on my inside and beat me right on the wire. The trainer was mad, the owner wasn’t happy, and they went really hard on me.

“I wanted to win that race but I guess I didn’t really know how to ride a race. It was hard to lose, but it was still good; I felt bad, but at the same time I was excited. They weren’t easy on me, but that’s how it is, you have to keep going, you have to be strong if you want to be a jockey.”

Diaz initiated a plan to give the young rider experience in the last couple of months of the year before things wrapped up for the winter off-season; but during the break things changed, a new trainer was installed, Miguel Silva.

It was the biggest barn at the track and its number one jockey was Silvio Amador Ruiz. Hernandez was raw and fresh: he knew he would only be picking up scraps there.

“The new trainer, he saw that I was galloping so many of the horses so he asked if I was a jockey. I said ‘Yes,’ so he told me to keep working hard. The season started and I was winning a lot for other barns, but then the big barn’s number one jockey had an accident, he fell off a horse and was out for a couple of months,” he explains.

“I was doing really good and the trainer called my agent and he gave me the first call for that big barn. I just started winning races like crazy!”

He ended the year as the track champion with 192 wins.

San Francisco Via Puerto Rico

The Clasico Internacional del Carib is the number one race for horses trained in countries that come under the Confederacion Hipica del Carib. The race moves around year to year and in 2009 it was held in Puerto Rico.

Amador’s race fall and Hernandez’s subsequent ascent put him on a trajectory that would carry him to the island’s Hipodromo Camarero and beyond when he picked up the ride on Mexico’s crack filly, Vivian Record.

The filly won the Clasico Rubi, the Clasico Esmerelda, the Clasico Diamante, the Criadores Mexicanos, the Handicap de las Estrellas, plus a couple of allowance races, en route to the big race in Puerto Rico that December where Hernandez would ride her.

“You needed a visa to go there, so I got lucky,” he says, pointing out that Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

Vivian Record ran a duelling second to the outstanding Venezuelan filly Bambero. But that trip, and the visa he had in his hands, was to change his life.

BAMBERA / Clasico Internacional del Carib // 2009

The race was December 6, but he decided to make the most of his time there and consider what to do next. Silva told him straight.

“He said, ‘Hey kid you have to go to the USA and ride there, because if you come back to Mexico it will be really hard for you to get into the US, this is your chance.’ I was 17, and I was like, ‘Ok,’ but at the same time I didn’t know anybody in the US so I decided I’d go back to Mexico, but we stayed in Puerto Rico for another week. The trainer said to me again, ‘Hey, you should try to go to the USA to ride before your visa expires.’”

Hernandez landed in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, the season of goodwill and all. He recalls walking to the immigration counter and handing over his documents, unsure what would happen next.

“It was like 50-50 if they would let me through, so I had nothing to lose,” he says. “But they said, ‘No, you can’t come into the USA with that visa, it’s only for Puerto Rico.’”

He was taken aside and spent the next six hours waiting and being questioned by immigration officers.

“Three or four guys interviewed me and then another guy came and he said, ‘Hey, kid, is it true that you’re coming here to work? Tell me the truth because I am the only guy who can let you get through, or I can put you on the first flight back to Mexico tomorrow morning.’

“So, I told him why I was coming, that I didn’t have any work yet, but I would get work and if it doesn’t work out I will go back to Mexico.

“He said to me he would let me go through, but he said I had to connect with a trainer and get work with him and then get the right paperwork, and get all the papers done legally.

“He let me through.”

Southward And Upward

Waiting for him in San Francisco was Ramon Silva, his new agent. In no time the kid from Mexico was riding races. His first Californian win came at Golden Gate Fields on January 10, 2010, a horse called Augment in a claimer for trainer Genaro Vallejo.

He ended that year with 137 wins at a 17 percent win rate, and with a two-year work visa. By the time the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, he was the dominant jockey in the north of the state, riding at Golden Gate, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Pleasanton and Fresno. His best year for wins came in 2016 when he put 229 on the board, and his prize money peak in that sphere came in 2019 at US$4.6 million dollars. But the big bucks and the prestige races were at Santa Anita and Del Mar; he had tried to break through in 2012 and failed.

Fate struck again when Covid shut down Golden Gate: he had no option but to head south and try again. In late June he went down to Los Alamitos, rode four winners in three days and hasn’t looked back. He hooked up with veteran agent Craig O’Bryan and his 2020 earnings increased to US$6.3 million; he posted more than US$15 million in season’s earnings in 2022 and 2023.

He found himself riding against the likes of John Velazquez, Frankie Dettori, Flavien Prat and Mike Smith, and winning big races for top trainers including John Sadler, Phillip D’Amato and most importantly of all the powerhouse Baffert stable.

Jockey Juan Hernandez
JUAN HERNANDEZ (R), FRANKIE DETTORI / G1 La Brea Stakes // Santa Anita Park /// 2023 //// Photo by Keith Birmingham

“I think we went to Del Mar and I remember I beat Bob’s good horses three or four times. Maybe he saw me or something, and I was winning a couple of races most days, so I guess he saw that,” he says.

“He always has his horses ready and he gives you a lot of confidence. He doesn’t say much, he lets you do your work, and I love that. He’ll say things like, this horse is ready, you know what to do, ride it like it’s the best horse in the race, and then simple things like make sure your horse is ready in the gate. I think that’s his main advice, make sure your horse is ready in the gate, so I do that.”

His first Grade 1 win was wire-to-wire on Mucho Unusual at Del Mar in the September 2020 Rodeo Drive Stakes. He now has 16 wins in the top grade and he wants more.

“One of my dreams is to ride in the Kentucky Derby … not just ride, I want to win the Kentucky Derby,” he says. “I want to win at the Breeders’ Cup too.”

The Drive To Succeed

Hernandez is known for his professionalism, his work ethic and reliability, and for his cool calmness; he judges pace as a top rider should, he’s strong, and, like his father riding a match race in Veracruz, he gets them out of the gate fast.

He says he is friendly around the track and in the jockeys’ room, but clarifies: “When I jump on a horse in the paddock, I don’t have friends, I’m all business. I just want to win. When I win a big race, I feel good, but then I’m like what’s next? When you win a race, you feel good that night but then it’s what’s next?”

So, what is next for Juan Hernandez? He says he is happy where he is with his wife Melissa and their two sons and is not about to leave Southern California. But he also knows the bigger purses and the greater prestige are back east, where they race more, too.

“You know, I love riding so I’d love to ride more horses and win more races. I want to travel as a jockey, so hopefully one day I can have an opportunity to go to Europe, Dubai, Japan,” he says.

“I was invited last year to the World All Star Jockeys but I was busy. It’s really hard because we have good races every week at Del Mar, but one day I want to ride over there and see what it’s like.”

He’s already come a long way from Veracruz and his small hometown of Perote.

“I used to say, ‘One day I want to ride with those guys in the US and be one of them,’” he says. “But when I moved here, I knew it would be tough and I didn’t know if I’d make it, I just thought, I’m going to try and make my dream, I want to ride with the best jockeys in the USA and do my best.”

The dreams he had as a child and as a young apprentice at Hipodromo de las Americas, have become his reality. He is ‘one of them’ now and he is ‘really happy’ with where he is at.

“You know,” he adds, “even when I was a kid in Mexico, I never imagined I’d do this good.”

David Morgan is Chief Journalist at Idol Horse. As a sports mad young lad in County Durham, England, horse racing hooked him at age 10. He has a keen knowledge of Hong Kong and Japanese racing after nine years as senior racing writer and racing editor at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. David has also worked in Dubai and spent several years at the Racenews agency in London. His credits include among others Racing Post, ANZ Bloodstock News, International Thoroughbred, TDN, and Asian Racing Report.

View all articles by David Morgan.

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