SARATOGA SPRINGS You’re not supposed to look back.
They tell you that.
Brian Hernandez Jr. had Ron the Greek and Flat Out coming after him to his outside, but if the black right eye he was sporting seemed to be some sort of cosmic voodoo admonishment for having sneaked a peek at them, it wasn’t. Because he didn’t.
As of two starts ago, Fort Larned has been wearing blinkers, so his focus was straight ahead, too, and what he saw, then didn’t, were Endorsement and Trickmeister.
Then the finish line.
The horse and jockey passed under the wire first in the 85th running of the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, giving the former Eclipse Award-winning apprentice the first Grade I victory of his career in his first-ever start at Saratoga, before 30,841.
Hernandez rode Fort Larned with authority, as if he were one of the local regulars, like Ramon Dominguez and John Velazquez, but, in the one moment in which he did allow himself to look back (Jumbotron excluded), he placed himself in company with the crew that has climbed out of Cajun country in Lafayette, La.
“We have nothing else to do, really,” he said, except get on horses when they’re, say, 5, and aspire to be the next Calvin Borel or Robby Albarado, both of whom have had a crack at riding Fort Larned, by the way, but haven’t been able to sustain any success with him.
In 17 career starts, Fort Larned has had nine different jockeys on his back, and Hernandez is 3-for-3, including the last two, after trainer Ian Wilkes added the blinkers.
“You look up and watch guys like Calvin Borel and Albarado and [Kent] Desormeaux and all our guys riding at Saratoga and winning Grade I’s, and you always think, man, I hope that can be me one day,” Hernandez said. “We finally made it.”
“Sometimes, it clicks — Calvin with Street Sense — they get along good,” Wilkes said. “Brian trusts the horse, he rides the horse with some confidence.”
Until June 30, Hernandez’s history with the son of E Dubai out of the Broad Brush mare Arlucea amounted to just an easy allowance win on a muddy track at Churchill Downs last November, while the colt cycled through a variety of riders.
On Saturday, he held off the duo trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, 5-2 favorite Ron the Greek, who was kept to a wide trip by Jose Lezcano to preserve momentum on the second turn, and 4-1 Flat Out. The stablemates practically ran in tandem closing in on Fort Larned in the final sixteenth of a mile, with Ron the Greek finishing a length a quarter back, and Flat Out another head behind.
Fort Larned is owned by Janis Whitham, who also owned Arlucea’s dam, two-time Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Bayakoa, with husband Frank.
At 7-2, he was well regarded as the second choice on the morning line, but the Skip Away and Cornhusker winner, who was 12 lengths back in eighth against Ron the Greek in the Stephen Foster, went off at 7-1.
“I was completely confident with him,” the 26-year-old Hernandez said. “I thought he was one of the better horses in the race. I mean, he was the second choice, and he had run some of the higher [Beyer] numbers, even though it was at smaller venues. But he showed today that he can compete with the best older horses in the country.”
Two of the first three career defeats for Fort Larned in 2010 came against Shackleford, one of the current division leaders who skipped the Whitney in favor of today’s A.G. Vanderbilt.
He had quietly carved out a stake in the division, with a 3-1-0 record from six starts, including two graded stakes and a second by a length to Successful Dan in the Grade II Alysheba.
On Saturday, he and Hernandez, who got his black eye from a horse he was working at Churchill, hustled from the outside post into the first turn to get good stalking position behind Endorsement and Trickmeister before any of the inside horses could crowd them into a wide trip.
Endorsement and Trickmeister did their thing, and then some, but crackling through a half-mile in a quick 46.97 and six furlongs in 1:10.86.
Fort Larned made a steady, measured move up to the quarter pole and went around those two on the turn to take the lead at the top of the stretch.
It looked like it was over at the eighth pole, at which point Hernandez stole a glance at the giant infield TV, but Ron the Greek and Flat Out kept coming, and Hernandez got busy on Fort Larned inside the sixteenth pole to preserve by far the biggest win of his career.
“They came a little late, but then I eased up on him, too, a little,” Hernandez admitted. “If I had squeezed on him all the way through the wire, he probably would’ve still won pretty easily. He was just kind of messing around with them.
“It’s unreal, to come to Saratoga, with all the press and everything else, to be able to win a Grade I like this.”
“It’s a huge honor to win the race named for the Whitneys,” Wilkes said. “I was very pleased. Brian did a tremendous job; first time over this track. He rode a perfect race and moved him at the right time. He put some open lengths between him and the closers. You couldn’t let the closers get to you. He’s been around for a while, and he’s a good young rider.”
Ron the Greek and Flat Out, who was second to Tizway in the Whitney and second to Havre de Grace in the Woodward while trained by Scooter Dickey last year, each represented a good chance for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott to win his first Whitney.
“Both horses ran excellent,” he said. “They were head-and-head coming down the lane, and both horses ran well and tried hard. I think we got parked out a little bit on the turn with Ron the Greek. Last time he had an inside trip and got up by a nose. Today, he went around, and it cost him that length.”
With only one mount on the entire card, Hernandez was able to linger in the winner’s circle after the race, while the other jocks were hustling to shower up and getting ready for two more races.
He was scheduled to fly back to Kentucky at 6 this morning to ride Ellis Park.
Surely, he’ll look back at this one.
Surely, he’d like to come back.
“It hasn’t really set in yet, but I’m sure it will in a minute,” he said.