Mystik Dan won Kentucky Derby by whisker thanks to jockey’s great ride

Mystik Dan won Kentucky Derby by whisker thanks to jockey’s great ride
Mystik Dan won Kentucky Derby by whisker thanks to jockey’s great ride

Jockey Brian Hernandez delivered one of the great human performances in the history of the Kentucky Derby. Mystik Dan wasn’t too bad, either.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There would have been a fleeting moment nearly three decades ago, participating in his first Kentucky Derby, when Kenny McPeek thought he might just win it. He was just 32 years old back then, barely starting to crack the top echelon of the sport, and a horse named Tejano Run — the first big horse he had in his barn — was flying through the stretch.

Ultimately, Tejano Run came up just short to Thunder Gulch. McPeek, a young and confident trainer, figured it was just the beginning.

“If I thought it would take me this long to knock it down…” he said, his voice trailing off Saturday night. “I thought I’d do it before today.”

But in the 29 years since, McPeek has won a ton of races and learned a lot of lessons. One of them, of course, is that winning the Derby is really, really hard: None of his next eight Derby runners even hit the board.

I have learned another lesson, too: It doesn’t take a superstar jockey to give a horse a great ride.

And on Saturday, in the 150th Kentucky Derby, 38-year-old journeyman Brian Hernandez delivered one of the great human performances in the history of the race.

And horse the he rode wasn’t too bad, either.

With a rail-skimming ride that was practically perfect in its boldness and timing, Hernandez got 18-1 shot Mystik Dan home by a whisker over the surging Sierra Leone and Forever Young in a three-horse photo finish that left the Churchill Downs crowd of 156,710 initially wondering who had won America’s most famous horse race.

“(Hernandez) was the difference in winning and losing today, for sure,” McPeek said.

Although McPeek’s career has progressed from his first Derby in 1995 to the point where he was operating one of the top 20 stables in the country on a regular basis — including a Preakness and Belmont victory — he’s never had a weekend like this one.

On Friday, he and Hernandez dominated the Kentucky Oaks with front-running Thorpedo Anna. A mere 24 hours later, they pulled a Derby shocker with a humbly bred colt who shot to the lead coming off the final turn and needed every inch of ground Hernandez was able to save to get his nose on the wire first.

“Three jumps before the wire I didn’t see (the other horses) at all,” Hernandez said. “And right at the wire they emerged late and I was like, ‘Did we win the Kentucky Derby?’ That was the longest two minutes waiting. From the fastest two minutes to the longest.”

The end result is that Hernandez is the first jockey to win the Oaks-Derby double since Calvin Borel in 2009, and McPeek is the first trainer to do it since 1952, making him a cinch to one day enter the horse racing Hall of Fame.

“For three weeks I felt like we were going to win both races,” McPeek said. “I can’t tell you why. Both horses have been so easy to deal with, the team has done such a great job every day. I believe in mojo and positive energy, and we had a lot of that.”

Although Hernandez has spent a couple of decades riding the Kentucky circuit, Mystik Dan was just his fifth mount in the Derby — a number that suggests he’s never been considered among the top tier of riders.

But about seven or eight years ago, he started riding a lot of horses for McPeek, who appreciated his professionalism and the solid work he would put in day after day. He didn’t have to beg Hernandez or his agent to get on his horses, scheduling conflicts were resolved easily and he rarely found himself second-guessing a ride.

“It’s business, business, business with no drama,” McPeek said. “I like no drama, especially the older I get. But more than anything, I put Brian on horses on a daily basis — good horses and average horses — and he does a good job on every one of them. Then I’ll get outside the box and go to Saratoga and ride some other riders and go, ‘Boy, I miss Brian because he doesn’t make many mistakes.’

“I don’t want anybody to know how good Brian is, but I guess the cat’s out of the bag.”

In February, Mystik Dan stamped himself as a possible Derby horse with an eight-length victory in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park, the home track of Arkansas-based owners Lance and Sherilyn Gasaway.

But after a bit of a disappointing third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, Mystik Dan was slightly forgotten in the Derby lead-up while most of the attention went to horses like Fierceness and Sierra Leone.

When Mystik Dan drew the No. 3 post position, assuring a rail trip would be his likely way through the field, Hernandez went to the film room to watch Calvin Borel, a fellow south Louisiana native he got to know when he first arrived in Kentucky with big hopes and dreams.

Borel — nicknamed Bo-rail due to his affinity for hugging the inside lane — won the Derby three times with Street Sense (2007), Mine That Bird (2009) and Super Saver (2010). All three times, he came through on the rail with a burst of speed that proved decisive in victory.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to roll the dice,'” Hernandez said. “Kenny trusts me to do things like that. We thought we had the right kind of horse to give him that kind of trip.”

As the race unfolded, Hernandez was able to establish position just behind the leaders — including 3-1 favorite Fierceness — who were setting a pretty fast pace with a 46.63-second half-mile.

As the field approached the quarter-pole, Hernandez guided Mystik Dan right on the heels of long-shot Track Phantom, waiting for an opening to develop. Then, as the horses came off the turn, Track Phantom drifted out and Hernandez immediately signaled to Mystik Dan that it was time to go.

In the blink of an eye, he cut the corner and opened up a couple-length lead on the field as Track Phantom, Fierceness and the rest of that leading pack began to pull.

“We might have taken out a little of the inside fence, but that’s OK,” Hernandez said. “I was just smiling the whole time. It’s an amazing feeling when you are on the horse under you and you know they’re going to go forward.”

Meanwhile, another battle was happening behind Mystik Dan. Sierra Leone and the Japanese entrant, Forever Young, began to move in tandem. Through the stretch, they appeared to make contact several times — although it wasn’t entirely clear which horse was at fault — but they were still gaining on Mystik Dan with every stride.

In retrospect, that probably made the difference given the razor-thin margin.

“I had a hard time keeping him straight,” said Sierra Leone’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione. “That definitely cost us.”

Meanwhile, the crowd gasped as the horses hit the wire, unsure who had actually won the race. Chad Brown, the trainer of Sierra Leone, thought it might have been a dead-heat. McPeek felt like he had won the race in real time and was even more confident when he saw a slow-motion replay on a monitor in his box.

After the trophy ceremony, he finally had a chance to watch the whole race, having finally captured the Derby he had been chasing since 1995. The analysis was shockingly simple.

“Great ride,” he said. “Great ride.”

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