Hernandez Giving Shakopee a Try

Israel%20Hernandez%208-9-13Israel Hernandez had dismounted, the grooms had taken his horse and he was headed through the winner’s circle on his way to the jockeys lounge when he was spotted by a young bystander.

“He looks like a real jockey,” the youngster said, emphasizing ‘real.’

Apparently Hernandez fit the perfect stereotype for this future horseplayer. Not many riders could squeeze into this jockey’s shoes, much less his shirts or pants.

If you spotted him on the street, you might guess his profession without much thought. Remember the fellows at the state fair who would guess your weight? They’d nail what Hernandez does for a living without taking a deep breath.

The apprentice rider arrived at Canterbury Park this summer from Chicago, where he had ridden at Hawthorne Race Course. He landed in Shakopee at the invitation of a friend who suggested he give it a try here.

Jovial and friendly, Hernandez does not deal with the problems some riders face, many of them on a daily basis. He does not have a weight problem.

At 5-foot-1 and 108 pounds, it is easy to see why Hernandez might have drifted toward his chosen his profession.

A native of rural Guerrero, Mexico, Hernandez grew up on a small ranch where his family kept horses, donkeys, and chickens, but no one before him had shown an interest in horse racing.

Israel got his start at Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City and gradually worked his way north , arriving in Ocala, Fla., in 2006 where he began galloping horses. A year later he found work as a hotwalker and groom at Arlington Park in Chicago, and began riding last November at Hawthorne.

Then came the call that lured him to Shakopee.

“A friend called me and said I should try Canterbury,” said Hernandez. “Yes, I like it here. It is a good track. Good people.”

Although he is still learning the ropes, so to speak, at Canterbury, lining up clients, learning which barns might be interested in trying him as an apprentice, Hernandez is of the mind right now to return to Shakopee again next summer.

He has given thought as well to trying Phoenix, a place many riders find the perfect setup with the Canterbury meet, ending as it does about the very time the Shakopee meet begins and picking up again afterward.

The Phoenix meet is attractive to horsemen who prefer a little stability in their lives, enabling them to spend the fall and winter months at one location.

Even so, there is a stronger attraction to Chicago for Hernandez, whose wife, Yazmin is there, awaiting the birth of their first child. “She has family there,” Hernandez said. And it is an easy trip from Chicago to Shakopee whenever a visit is warranted. He also has a brother, Pedro, who is galloping horses now at Arlington Park.

There is a gap in Hernandez’s experiences in the U.S. that he explains easily. He returned to Mexico in October of 2010 and returned last October.

Although success in Shakopee is coming slowly, heading into Friday’s card Hernandez had picked up 56 mounts, had won five races and finished second and third seven times each.

Oh, by the way, the diminutive rider does have a secret no race fan or even professional carnival guesser is apt to guess.

What did sport did he enjoy most as a kid, when he was even shorter than he is today?

“Basketball,” he said.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Geovanni Franco – The Godfather

The grin stretches ear to ear whenever he hears the music, in response to the recognition but maybe too because it’s a reminder he’s just ridden another winner. Each time he enters the winner’s circle, track announcer Paul Allen starts the background music from the movie, the Godfather. The music has played a total of 15 times now.

“It’s OK. I like it,” said Geovanni Franco, 21, riding for the first time this summer at Canterbury Park.

Here’s the kicker to this particular tale. Franco was born and raised in Mexico City, has never been to Italy and needed to be told that the music accompanying each of his wins was from an American movie about Italian mobsters.

“Yeah, I know,” he said Friday night after bringing in Patch of Blue in the fourth race, his 15th win of the meet. “The Mafia.”

Franco was standing just inside the jockeys lounge talking about the win when the riders for the next race began strolling past him out the door.

“Hey, way to go, Godfather,” said Denny Velasquez, bumping fists with Franco.

A short time later, Lori Keith walked past, done for the night. “Hey, Geovanni,” she said, in her best, gruff Italian dialect.

Riding at Canterbury Park for the first time, in the U.S. only a couple of years, Geovanni Franco, just like that, has an identity that has absolutely nothing to do with his true heritage.

There is nothing in his background to suggest that he might one day become a jockey, either. “I have an uncle who’s a farrier,” he said. “He shoes jumpers.” That was Franco’s introduction to the horse world, and it evolved from there.

That was in Mexico City, and two years later Franco was riding at the city’s only thoroughbred track, the Hipodromo de Las Americas.

He was convinced to give Hastings Racecourse a try in Canada – the same place this year’s Kentucky Derby winning rider Mario Gutierrez got his start – in 2009 and wound up the track’s leading bug boy. His first winner, on a horse named Via Vennetto, came two months short of his 18th birthday.

“Then I went back to Mexico for five months,” he said.

Next, he gave Santa Anita a try. “I was there one month,” he said. “I won one race.”

That surprised him.

“I didn’t think it would be that tough,” he explained.

Then he went to San Francisco, back to Canada and home again to Mexico.

Everything changed in 2011 while he was racing in Northern California, at the Fair meets. He met Miguel Silva at the Santa Rosa meet.

“The very first race he won for me,” said Silva. “A horse named Itspartytime.”

A relationship developed quickly. When Silva returned to Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Franco went too. When Silva shipped his horses to Shakopee, Franco came along. “Wherever he goes, I go,” Franco said.

Franco has not been involved in a sport other than race-riding. “No, nothing,” he said. “Not even soccer, although I like to watch it.”

Franco returns to Mexico City periodically to visit, but has no intentions of staying on a permanent basis. “No it’s better here,” he said. “You can make more money, a better living.”

It’s better in the U.S., with one exception. “The food,” he said. “The food is better in Mexico.”

That thought brought him back to his original thought. What good is better food if you don’t have the money to buy it.

Despite nothing in his background to suggest Franco would one day make a good race-rider, he has done just fine in a very short time.

He finished tied for third with 75 wins competing in the very competitive jockey colony at Turf Paradise last winter. Friday night, he moved into sole possession of fifth place at Canterbury Friday night with his 15th win of the meet.

After which, his theme song played, of course.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

Geovanni Franco – The Godfather

The grin stretches ear to ear whenever he hears the music, in response to the recognition but maybe too because it’s a reminder he’s just ridden another winner. Each time he enters the winner’s circle, track announcer Paul Allen starts the background music from the movie, the Godfather. The music has played a total of 15 times now.

“It’s OK. I like it,” said Geovanni Franco, 21, riding for the first time this summer at Canterbury Park.

Here’s the kicker to this particular tale. Franco was born and raised in Mexico City, has never been to Italy and needed to be told that the music accompanying each of his wins was from an American movie about Italian mobsters.

“Yeah, I know,” he said Friday night after bringing in Patch of Blue in the fourth race, his 15th win of the meet. “The Mafia.”

Franco was standing just inside the jockeys lounge talking about the win when the riders for the next race began strolling past him out the door.

“Hey, way to go, Godfather,” said Denny Velasquez, bumping fists with Franco.

A short time later, Lori Keith walked past, done for the night. “Hey, Geovanni,” she said, in her best, gruff Italian dialect.

Riding at Canterbury Park for the first time, in the U.S. only a couple of years, Geovanni Franco, just like that, has an identity that has absolutely nothing to do with his true heritage.

There is nothing in his background to suggest that he might one day become a jockey, either. “I have an uncle who’s a farrier,” he said. “He shoes jumpers.” That was Franco’s introduction to the horse world, and it evolved from there.

That was in Mexico City, and two years later Franco was riding at the city’s only thoroughbred track, the Hipodromo de Las Americas.

He was convinced to give Hastings Racecourse a try in Canada – the same place this year’s Kentucky Derby winning rider Mario Gutierrez got his start – in 2009 and wound up the track’s leading bug boy. His first winner, on a horse named Via Vennetto, came two months short of his 18th birthday.

“Then I went back to Mexico for five months,” he said.

Next, he gave Santa Anita a try. “I was there one month,” he said. “I won one race.”

That surprised him.

“I didn’t think it would be that tough,” he explained.

Then he went to San Francisco, back to Canada and home again to Mexico.

Everything changed in 2011 while he was racing in Northern California, at the Fair meets. He met Miguel Silva at the Santa Rosa meet.

“The very first race he won for me,” said Silva. “A horse named Itspartytime.”

A relationship developed quickly. When Silva returned to Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Franco went too. When Silva shipped his horses to Shakopee, Franco came along. “Wherever he goes, I go,” Franco said.

Franco has not been involved in a sport other than race-riding. “No, nothing,” he said. “Not even soccer, although I like to watch it.”

Franco returns to Mexico City periodically to visit, but has no intentions of staying on a permanent basis. “No it’s better here,” he said. “You can make more money, a better living.”

It’s better in the U.S., with one exception. “The food,” he said. “The food is better in Mexico.”

That thought brought him back to his original thought. What good is better food if you don’t have the money to buy it.

Despite nothing in his background to suggest Franco would one day make a good race-rider, he has done just fine in a very short time.

He finished tied for third with 75 wins competing in the very competitive jockey colony at Turf Paradise last winter. Friday night, he moved into sole possession of fifth place at Canterbury Friday night with his 15th win of the meet.

After which, his theme song played, of course.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.

Photo Credit: Coady Photography