SARATOGA SPRINGS -- In the 149-year history of Saratoga Race Course, few have enjoyed their first visit more than Brian Hernandez Jr. The 26-year-old jockey from Louisiana's Cajun country earned his first Grade I victory Saturday in the $750,000 Whitney Handicap, one of America's most prestigious races.
Hernandez stalked a strong pace in third while three-wide before letting Fort Larned loose at the top of the stretch, and they led by four lengths at the eighth pole. Hernandez began to celebrate prematurely passing the sixteenth pole but was never in any danger. Ron the Greek, the 5-2 favorite, lost his chance after entering the stretch very wide and settled for second, 1¼ lengths behind. Flat Out was third and Hymn Book fourth.
"We had a perfect trip,'' Hernandez said. "Coming to the second turn, I had a lot of horse. Once we got past [Trickmeister], he switched leads, and it was all him from there.''
Hernandez said he wasn't nervous because trainer Ian Wilkes told him how well Fort Larned was training. "Ian called the other day,'' Hernandez said, "and his assistant was bragging on the horse all week.''
The 4-year-old son of E Dubai paid $16.40 after running 11/8 miles on a fast track in 1:47.76 for his seventh win in 17 starts. He earned $450,000, more than doubling his career total to $881,236 for Janis Whitham.
"I always thought he belonged with these horses,'' Wilkes said. "But I doubted myself after the Stephen Foster, when he ran eighth [to Ron the Greek] and really got his head handed to him. But this horse keeps rattling off those 108 Beyer speed figures.''
Fort Larned is 3-for-3 with Hernandez, who shipped in from tiny Ellis Park, called the Pea Patch, in western Kentucky. He rides the Kentucky circuit most of the year and spends winters at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He learned to ride early and was tutored by his father. Brian Hernandez Sr., who came up on Louisiana's bush tracks with Calvin Borel, Kent Desormeaux and Robby Albarado.
"I grew up seeing those guys win big races on national television,'' he said. "This still hasn't set in. Definitely my biggest win, and to do it at Saratoga with all the press here is very exciting.''
Hernandez beamed as the first lady of Saratoga, Marylou Whitney, handed the silver trophy to Clay Witham, son of the owner. When he was an apprentice at Evangeline Downs in Opelousas, La., Hernandez never envisioned being part of that scene.
"Brian rode a perfect race and moved at the right time,'' Wilkes said. "He put some open lengths between him and the closers. He's been around for a while, and he's a good young rider.''
Shackleford poised for feat. Although Shackleford won the Preakness last year, he left the impression he could have done more. After beginning his career 3-for-14, he maxed out in his last two starts, ending a seven-race losing streak on the Kentucky Derby undercard before winning the Grade I Met Mile. If the 6-5 favorite takes Sunday's 6-furlong Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap at Saratoga, he'll join elite company. Since 1974, only Ruffian, Foolish Pleasure, Precisionist and Dancing Spree won a Grade I at 6 furlongs and beyond 11/8 miles.
"It might stamp you as great,'' trainer Dale Romans said. "Those are great horses on that list.''
Around the track. Emma's Encore ($12.40) repeated for 83-year-old trainer Allen Jerkens, rallying to upset Agave Kiss (third at 4-5 odds) in the Grade I, 6-furlong Prioress Stakes. Agave Kiss ran fifth at 1-5 behind 39-1 Emma's Encore in a stakes July 7 at Belmont Park.