Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘Unbelievable’ Journey From Barber Shop To Winner’s Circle

It was just a regular afternoon in the South Florida barber shop: young Cuban immigrant Andy Hernandez was preparing to give a customer a haircut as he had done nearly every day since the age of 15, but Hernandez couldn’t have known that the man in his chair would change his life forever.

When Hernandez happened to mention that he liked horse racing, the patron offered to broker an introduction to Diosdado Iglesias, a Thoroughbred trainer in Florida who’d emigrated from Cuba after the downturn of the country’s Oriental Park Racetrack in the late 1950s. 

Iglesias, also a former jockey, took Hernandez under his wing and taught him everything he knew about the Thoroughbred horse.

Five years after that fateful meeting, Hernandez is now a top apprentice jockey based at Parx. Last weekend, Hernandez was filled with emotion when he won his first graded stakes race aboard That’s Right, pumping his fist in the air as he crossed the wire in front. It was also the first graded stakes win for the 3-year-old’s trainer, Michael Moore.

“It was unbelievable,” Hernandez said. “I just want to thank the trainer with all my heart, not only for the opportunity to ride the horse, but also for the trust they had in me.” 

That trust, and Hernandez’ subsequent ability to deliver on the connections’ faith, must have felt surreal to the 22-year-old apprentice.

Hernandez grew up the youngest of four children supported by a single mother in Cuba, so though he’d always liked horses, he was never able to spend much time around them. His job as a barber helped his mother pay the bills, and when he moved to the United States in 2018, that skill helped Hernandez keep food on the table.

Still, the horses were like a siren song, constantly playing in the background.

When the connection from the barber shop was first made, Iglesias must have recognized that passion in Hernandez. He made the offer: if Hernandez was willing to put in the work, Iglesias would share his knowledge.

“[Iglesias] taught me everything about horses,” Hernandez said. “He taught me how to train them, how to race them, everything that is going to happen in a race, how to come out of the gates, everything. The most important thing he taught me was honesty; he’s a very honest man.”

When Hernandez was ready, his mentor helped him get a job galloping at Gulfstream Park for trainer David Brownlee.

“It’s funny because when I first galloped for him on the racetrack, I didn’t understand so much English,” Hernandez admitted. “He would tell me to back the horse up to the eighth pole, then gallop around to the six furlong pole and then jog home. Well, I didn’t understand, and he looked at my face and knew right away. 

“He didn’t get mad. He would lean down and draw in the dirt where to go and how to do it, so every day since it was pretty much the same thing, that’s how I started learning English.”

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Brownlee gave Hernandez his first mount as a jockey at Gulfstream in April of 2021, but Hernandez would only wind up riding three races at the Hallandale Beach oval due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions: Hernandez wasn’t riding enough races to make a living as a jockey just yet, but jockeys were not allowed to gallop horses on the backstretch at that time. 

It was an extremely difficult situation for an up-and-coming apprentice jockey, especially considering the fact that Hernandez’ English was spotty at best and he hadn’t made a ton of other friends around the racetrack.

Hernandez could have fallen back on his barbershop skills, but he really wanted to pursue his riding career full time. Iglesias offered Hernandez a spot to continue learning at Delaware Park, and helped the young rider with a place to stay until he got on his feet.

Agent Jim Boulmetis doesn’t remember who suggested he watch an apprentice ride at Delaware, but he was impressed by what he saw. 

Hernandez remembers the introduction differently: “The day Jimmy saw me race, I only rode one horse that day. Luckily I won it!”

Boulmetis, the son of a Hall of Fame jockey and a former-trainer-turned-jockey’s agent, invited Hernandez to join him at Parx.

“I had no money to rent myself a spot, so I came from Delaware without anything,” Hernandez said. “I could have been living in the stables. I was scared and excited all at the same time, but Jimmy has become more like a friend than an agent.”

Trainer Leslye Bouchard and her husband Oclide Mino took Hernandez into their home until he could get a place of his own, and the couple were some of his biggest supporters in the beginning.

It is Hernandez’ talent and personality that have since allowed his career to blossom at the Pennsylvania track.

“He has all the attributes, the personality, the work ethic, and the drive,” said Boulmetis. “His personality carries him a long way; he’s very likable. He’s just the same every day, always happy, always in a good mood, always positive. That attitude is his biggest thing, other than his ability.”

After winning just two races in Delaware and moving to Parx in September, Hernandez wound up winning 23 races in 2021. This year, the apprentice has added 96 more winners to his tally, including the graded stakes victory with That’s Right.

Andy Hernandez celebrates his first graded stakes win with That’s Right

Trainer Mike Moore talked to the Parx media office about the decision to stick with Hernandez on such a big day.

“Believe me, you get people saying, ‘All these good riders coming in here, you don’t want to use one of these guys?’” Moore said. “He has done nothing wrong on him, and he helps me a lot in the morning. We stuck with him.”

“Mike has been a supporter of Andy from the beginning,” Boulmetis explained. “I’ve been friends with Mike for a few years, and he’s always helped me out as an agent, so when I brought Andy there it just clicked. Andy’s won with 25 or 30 percent of the mounts that he’s ridden for Mike. 

“The other thing that I’d like to say is how much Andy and I appreciate that owner and Mike for giving Andy the opportunity to ride in a Grade 3 race when most of the better riders in the country were there that day. They stuck with him – that was huge. We talked about it after, and Mike said it just wouldn’t have meant as much if somebody else had ridden the horse; it was more or less like a family affair. There aren’t many apprentices that win graded stakes.”

From a South Florida barber shop to the winner’s circle of a $300,000 race in Pennsylvania, Hernandez remains cognizant of all the help he’s gotten along the way.

“Maybe some trainers would think that race was too difficult for an apprentice rider, and the horse was like the second favorite in the race,” Hernandez said. “It meant so much because (the trainer) still trusted me to do the right thing, and he let me ride that horse.”

Special thanks to Liset Almora for her help with the interview for this feature.

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘Unbelievable’ Journey From Barber Shop To Winner’s Circle appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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