Growing up in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, Rafael Hernandez loved to listen to music and ride horses.
After seeing Hernandez riding a horse around one day, one of his relatives told him he could be a jockey. Hernandez thought he was going to be a disc jockey.
“Oh no. No music,” Hernandez remembered — with a laugh — what the relative had said. “Yeah, I know the disc jockeys. … I don’t even know about the jockeys. No. Jockeys of the racehorses. I said, ‘What the hell is that?’”
Hernandez, who was 16 at the time, said he started researching jockeys on a computer and told his relative that he would ride the horses. But the first time he got on a horse after that, he immediately fell off. The relative then told Hernandez he wasn’t good enough to be a jockey.
That message didn’t sit well with him, so Hernandez went to his mother and told her he wanted to be a jockey.
“She said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘That’s a challenge for me,’” Hernandez recalled. “(The relative) told me I wasn’t able to do it. I’m going to show him. And that’s how it started.”
Hernandez, now 29, then went through two years of jockey school in Puerto Rico, where he rode in seven or eight schooling races a day against other students. He also had to breeze or gallop at least 500 horses to get approval.
As well, Hernandez had to weigh no more than 105 pounds to remain in the class. Anything heavier meant dismissal from the program.
Once he successfully completed his obligation and obtained his license, Hernandez was told to fly to Tampa, Fla. to meet his uncle, Herbie Rivera — a former jockey who was an agent at Tampa Bay Downs.
“He told me he was going to help me,” said Hernandez, who never before had been out of his native country. “And the rest is history.”
Hernandez eventually arrived at Fairmount Park in 2004, but he didn’t know anyone in the barn area at the track in Collinsville.
He worked horses in the morning and rode in races during the day or in the evening. He won 57 times from 539 mounts that year and left a lasting impression on Fairmount’s trainers.
He came back to Fairmount in 2005 looking for work and approached trainer Tom Trione, Jr.
“I remembered him from the year before when he was a bug rider (an apprentice who got weight breaks) and I watched him work horses,” Trione said. “He was patient. He set a horse real well. He had good hands.”
Trione told Hernandez if he worked the horses in the morning, he probably would ride Trione’s horses in some races.
“It worked,” Trione said. “The first one I rode him on, it won. And the others were all right there. We just went from there.”
That turned out to be a breakout year for the 20-year-old future star. He won the riding title at Fairmount in 2005, the first of four in a row. He finished second in 2009 when he left to go to Indiana for a month, but returned in 2010 to claim the jockey championship.
Hernandez has been on top ever since.
He now rides primarily for trainer Scott Becker, who trains for Fairmount owner Bill Stiritz. And the trio are entered in the sixth race Thursday at Churchill Downs, in Louisville, Ky., aboard Congenial.
Hernandez has replaced Dave Gall as the most liked or hated rider at Fairmount, depending on the outcome of a race. Last month, Hernandez won seven of eight races on a card and over a three race-day period won 12 of 13 races.
“He’s smart and he’s good to work with,” Becker said. “He has real good hands and he gets (horses) to relax. He’s a very good gate jock. Never gets in trouble.”
While a lot of jockeys like to go out and have a good time then have to lose weight to keep riding, Hernandez is the opposite. He doesn’t drink or smoke and is a strong family man. He stands 5 feet 5, weighs 112 pounds and is married (Cynthia) with two children (Rafael Jr., 4 and Rodrigo, 2).
Hernandez, who had plans to be an airplane mechanic if riding didn’t pan out, has the ability to ride and be successful anywhere in the country. But he chooses to anchor close to home.
As far as retiring as a rider, Hernandez doesn’t think about that. He’s in the prime of his career and would like to ride in the Triple Crown races, the Breeders’ Cup and other big events.
“I’ll go as far as my body lets me go,” he said. “I don’t have any bad habits.”
Hernandez just doesn’t play music. He lets his horses spin the records.