Tuesday, July 29, 2008
AT 85, HERNANDEZ TURNS BACK THE CLOCK AT SARATOGA
Question: Who is the oldest active trainer on the New York Racing Association circuit who has been saddling winners at Saratoga Race Course since 1991?
A. H. Allen Jerkens
B. Frank “Pancho” Martin
C. Ramon “Mike” Hernandez
Martin, another Hall of Famer who won the Saratoga training title in 1980 and 1982, is 82 years old. However, Martin, who was the leading New York trainer in the early 1980s, has not won at Saratoga since 2005, when he won three races for Flying Zee Stable.
The correct response: C. Ramon “Mike” Hernandez, who at 85 is the oldest active trainer in New York. He has won at least one race at Saratoga each year for the past 17 years, and it has been of him, in highest esteem, said that “he can sneak sunrise by a rooster.”
Last year, when Hernandez had just five winners from 99 starters all year, two of those came at Saratoga: Classic Pack won the West Point Handicap for New York-breds on the grass and Slipstone was victorious in a state-bred maiden race.
This year, Hernandez didn’t hesitate to continue his string of success as Lookin At Her broke her maiden against New York-breds on Opening Day of Saratoga’s 140th meet. That was Hernandez’s eighth winner this year from his small stable of 16 horses.
“It has always been tough,” Hernandez said. “To be a trainer like myself and run against some of the best trainers in the country, it’s not easy.”
Hernandez’s hard work as a horseman began when he was an 18-year-old groom at Hippodromo de las Americas in Mexico City. A year later, he ventured north and traveled throughout Kentucky, Arkansas, Detroit, and Ohio as a groom for the C.E. Buckley Stable and trainer Cecil Locklear.
“He was a great guy and he gave me a lot of confidence,” Hernandez said. “He used to send me a bunch of horses and I got the horses ready. Finally, I was ready to go back home but he didn’t want to let me go. I wanted to go back home to see my mom and relatives.”
He returned to Mexico in 1950 and worked for late Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera, who would become the godfather for his daughters Teresa, Catherine and Mary and who would remain a steadfast friend. Indeed, when Hernandez returned to the United States in 1967, it was Barrera who suggested he take a position at Clermont Farm in Germantown, 75 miles south of Saratoga.
“I was looking for the best break I could find,” said Hernandez. “He said, ‘Why don’t you go to New York? Do you want to go to a farm?’ I told him, ‘I’ll go anywhere because I have a family and I want to settle down.’”
Hernandez worked as the manager of Clermont Farms until 1975 before going back out as a trainer.
“After the family got big and graduated from high school, I said to myself, ‘It’s time to go back to the races,’” Hernandez said. “I got some horses, went back to New York, and began training again.”
It wasn’t long before he made a name for himself, particularly with New York-breds. Among his winners were Fratello Ed, who took the 1976 Ashley T. Cole and Hudson Handicaps, four-time stakes winner Adirondack Holme and Dedicated Rullah, who won the 1979 Albany Handicap at Saratoga, the year Hernandez was recognized as the top trainer of state-breds.
After all these years, Hernandez, who will saddle Life Support and Luck on Thursday’s card, continues to rise early to get to his barn midway on the turn of the Oklahoma training track each morning.
“I get up at quarter to four every morning, by the time I get coffee and donuts for the boys, I am here at five o’clock,” he said. “It’s like any other profession; as long as you like doing it, you can keep it as long as you can.
“I’ve been pretty lucky,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know how I have done it. I guess it is one of those things where I get the right horse in the right conditions and that horse comes through to win the race. But if you work hard and try hard, it pays off.”
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Thursday’s feature is the $80,000-added John Morrissey Stakes for three-year-olds and older New York-bred fillies and mares at six furlongs.
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