“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.