Brian Hernandez Jr. knows his way around horses. A second-generation jockey who rode his first winner in 2004, he reached $100 million last month in career purse earnings.
See a full list of 2022 Kentucky Derby contenders.
That does not mean he knows it all. He said he is still learning about Tiz the Bomb, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf runner-up whom trainer Kenny McPeek returns to the dirt Saturday in the Grade 3, $250,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Hernandez has ridden the $330,000 Hit It a Bomb colt twice on the dirt, including a maiden-breaking runaway on the Ellis Park dirt last summer. He also rode Tiz the Bomb three times last year on the turf, including victories in a mile stakes at Kentucky Downs and in the Bourbon (G2) at Keeneland.
Asked on this week’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod which surface was better for the colt owned by Phoenix Thoroughbred, Hernandez said, “I don’t know. He broke his maiden on the dirt at Ellis, and he won that race by 14 lengths. After that Kenny had so many 2-year-olds that he wanted to keep them separated. It was just kind of a deal where he ended up on the grass, and I think he’s just such a talented and athletic horse. He can do both. He’s one of those rare horses that he just brings his ‘A’ game with him, and he does what he needs to do.”
McPeek said he is confident about Tiz the Bomb’s move back to the dirt for a first race in two months – and the first since a minor injury that followed the Breeders’ Cup.
“He’s developed really well,” McPeek told HRN. “He had a little scratch, but we got that sorted out, and he’s really been training well.”
Barn Tour: McPeek discusses Derby prospects and others.
Speaking from New Orleans on Thursday, Hernandez said he could vouch for McPeek’s praise of Tiz the Bomb’s morning work.
“I was sitting here (Thursday) morning to watch some videos of him gallop, and he looks great,” Hernandez said. “Even as a 2-year-old last year, he did a lot, but still he was immature about a lot of things. He’s learning a lot. It’s going to be fun to see if he jumps up as a 3-year-old, which we think he will. We’re looking forward to Saturday just to get him back on the Derby trail.”
Click here for Gulfstream Park entries and results.
The Holy Bull is a 10-4-2-1 qualifier toward the Derby. Drawn into post 6 for the 1 1/16 miles against seven other colts and a gelding, Tiz the Bomb (5-1) is the fourth choice on the morning line. Mid-pack runner Mo Donegal (3-1), the winner of the Remsen (G2) in December, is the morning-line favorite. Maiden victor Giant Game (7-2), third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, drew wide and is the second choice. Likely pacesetter Simplification (4-1), the New Year’s Day winner of the one-mile Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park, got post 4 and is the third choice.
Hernandez knows Tiz the Bomb won from the front breaking his maiden and made an impressive closing move in his Breeders’ Cup performance. He was not tipping his hand about what may unfold at Gulfstream on Saturday. Not that he necessarily knew.
“The nice thing about riding for Kenny is that we’re going to just let our horse see the breed develop in front of him,” said Hernandez, 36, a native of Lafayette, La. “It’s not one of those deals where we have to be 10 lengths back or we have to be five lengths back. We’ll let the horse leave the gate and position himself. I think he’s got enough tactical speed where he can be where he needs to be. If he improves any from his 2-year-old year to his 3-year-old year, he’ll be able to finish it off and have the turn of foot that we’re going to need.”
One other advantage Tiz the Bomb may have this weekend is his experience in route races. If the mile-chute win at Ellis counts, he has two victories and a second going two turns.
“It’s big,” Hernández said. “The nice thing about Tiz the Bomb is he’s learned his lessons with each race. If you go back and watch the Bourbon at Keeneland, he had a couple horses run up outside of him, and it looked like he was going to be done that day. When he turned for home, he got back outside, and he went on again to just run by them.
“Even in the Breeders’ Cup, he got shuffled back a little bit. Going around the first turn, I was like, ‘Man, there’s no way I can make any kind of improvement from this position.’ When I called on him, especially at Del Mar with the short stretch, he really ran home. With each race, he’s gotten better and better, and he’s just learning his lessons.”
Tiz the Bomb is one of at least four Kentucky Derby candidates whom Hernandez has ridden. In Las Vegas he is best-priced at 45-1 to win May 7 at Churchill Downs. His stablemate Rattle N Roll, who won the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) last fall at Keeneland, is 28-1 on his way to the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) on March 12. Lecomte (G3) runner-up Epicenter, who is trained by Steve Asmussen, is 27-1. Maiden winner Strava, who is in Dallas Stewart’s barn, is 150-1 after finishing a troubled second in an allowance start last month.
Not that he has to choose one yet as his would-be ride in the Derby, Hernandez said he leaves those details up to his agent Frank Bernis.
“He does a great job of handling all that,” Hernandez said. “With all the Derby preps right now, we’re just trying to get through it and just enjoy it. Being able to set ourselves up with this many really good 3-year-olds, it’s exciting.”
Knowing he has someone else to negotiate his assignments, Hernandez may have been speaking for all his peers when he said, “I get lucky. I get to sit back and just ride them.”