Rafael Hernandez laughed when he was asked on Sunday if winning the Woodbine jockey’s title was one of his goals this year.
He wasn’t being rude or anything. The fact is, Hernandez had been waiting for someone to ask him that question.
Since arriving at the west-end Toronto track to race full time in 2016, the Puerto Rican-born rider has finished fourth, third and second in the jockey standings, climbing up the ladder with admirable consistency.
As the 2019 Woodbine season approaches the half-way point, the personable jockey sits in first place in the standings with 72 victories — including a win aboard the 5-year-old bay American Guru for trainer Mike Doyle and owner Stronach Stables in the 10th race on Sunday afternoon.
In 2018, the native of Buri, Brazil set a record for most wins in a single meet at the Rexdale track with 237. No jockey at Woodbine has come within 24 wins of Da Silva by season’s end the last four years. Last year, Hernandez won 168 races to place second, 69 fewer than his Brazilian rival.
But as the second half of the 2019 season approaches, Hernandez has taken a five-win lead over Da Silva, with Japanese apprentice rider Kazushi Kimura third with 56. Hernandez said he is happy to be leading the jockey standings, but insisted that he gives winning the overall title little, if any, thought.
“Numbers don’t mean nothing. I want to win every race I’m in, stay happy, keep my trainers and owners happy and I just try to do my best,” said Hernandez. “But every year you can see that the numbers don’t lie.”
Hernandez travelled to Woodbine for 17 races in 2015, including winning the Queen’s Plate aboard Shaman Ghost for trainer Brian Lynch.
He had been dominating at the little-known Fairmount Park in Illinois when trainer Wesley Ward plucked him out of the American midwest and brought Hernandez to prestigious Gulfstream Park in Florida where he flourished. However, in Feb. 2016, Hernandez was involved in a bad accident at Gulfstream and suffered a broken collarbone, several broken ribs and had to have a kidney removed.
“When I got hurt in Gulfstream, I decided that I wanted a place to stay with my family. We were travelling everywhere with Wesley Ward and I was tired of that,” said Hernandez. “A friend of mine, Edgar Prado, told me about (Woodbine). He said ‘You always win when you go there. Why don’t you go there?’
“It was a big step, but I got the right guy. Agent Tony Esposito flew to Gulfstream to talk to me and my family and I made the decision to ride in Canada (full time) in 2016,” he added.
During his first season at Woodbine, a number of track people predicted that it would be just a matter of time before Hernandez finished on top of the jockey standings. And so far this season, he is the leader. Of course, nobody expects Da Silva to give up his title without a fight and Hernandez has nothing but respect for his 44-year-old rival who is a six-time Sovereign Award winner as Canada’s Outstanding Jockey (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2013, 2010).
“I don’t look at it as beating out one guy. We are all in competition, but we’re all friends in the jockey’s room,” said Hernandez, whose first victory at Woodbine came aboard International Star in the Grade 3 Grey Stakes on Oct.5, 2014. “On the racetrack when the gates open, you have to take care of business. That’s what you get paid for, to beat the other horses and win races.”
So far this season, Hernandez is taking care of business.
“That was weird. I won the Queen’s Plate (in 2015), but I never thought I would come here (full time),” Hernandez said. “But it was a good decision. My kids love Canada, it’s a good country. I love it here.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019