05/05/2024. Horse Racing World, Kentucky Derby (USA): Mystik Dan wins the 150th Kentucky Derby ’24 by less than a nose



It is a marriage of convenience, in the best sense of that word. Trainer Kenny McPeek and jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. are partners in peaceful coexistence.

No stress. No tension. “No drama,” McPeek says, repeatedly.

He said it May 3 after Hernandez rode Thorpedo Anna  to the trainer’s first victory in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), and he reiterated the sentiment May 4 after Hernandez beat Sierra Leone  by Mystik Dan ’s nose to win the Kentucky Derby (G1).

No trainer had completed the Oaks/Derby double since Ben Jones did it in 1952, and few trainers have developed so strong a bond with their first-call rider than the one McPeek has forged with Hernandez. Where others clash, they coordinate. Listen to them long enough and you’re sure to hear an echo.

“He entrusted me and lets me kind of go out there and do things and not tie my hands to force horses to do things they might not like to do,” Hernandez said. “I think my riding style fits with his training style, as well, where we let the horses develop and let them take you around there and try to find the trip with them.

“It’s just been a great relationship, and I have been fortunate enough to fall into a good spot.”

McPeek’s methodology is somewhat unusual for top-tier trainers. Openly unconcerned with his winning percentage, he prefers to play the long game, letting his horses “learn some lessons,” even when that means courting adversity and losing races.

“We tend to—I’m almost going to say ‘schooling race’ the first time out, which usually hurts our percentage,” McPeek said Saturday. “And Brian’s familiar with that process every time. We try to teach horses to take a little dirt in their face. This colt (Mystik Dan), he had some schooling in his first start. He could have won first time out if you wanted him to, but he wouldn’t have learned anything.”

Hernandez embraced McPeek’s philosophy early in their relationship and rapidly earned his trust. Saturday’s Derby 150 was McPeek’s 10th Run for the Roses and Hernandez has ridden for the trainer the past three years he’s had horses in the race. He is the only rider McPeek has used more than once in the country’s most famous race. When the two men are finished celebrating their wondrous weekend, Hernandez is scheduled to ride all three of McPeek’s entries on the May 9 card at Churchill Downs—two allowance optional claiming races and a starter allowance.

“Frank Bernis is Brian’s agent and there’s nothing complicated about either one of them,” McPeek said. “It’s all business, business, business and there’s no drama. And I like no drama, especially the older I get. 

“I want to know that somebody is there; that you don’t have to beg them to come. You don’t have to worry about them not showing up, conflicts and things like that. 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. I have rarely come back and said, ‘That was horrible.’ No, I don’t have that.”

Hernandez waves at the 156,710 crowd after winning the 150th Kentucky Derby with Mystik Dan.<br> Mystik Dan with Brian Hernandez, Jr. wins the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) for trainer Ken McPeek at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky on May 4, 2024. Photo by Chad B. Harmon
Photo: Chad B. Harmon

Brian Hernandez Jr. waves to the crowd after winning the Kentucky Derby

What he has is a jockey as steady as a metronome. Riding primarily for McPeek, Hernandez has exceeded $10 million in earnings three years in a row and now ranks fourth in 2024 earnings after his back-to-back breakthroughs at Churchill Downs.

“I have just been very fortunate,” Hernandez said. “Like Kenny said, a big part of this goes back to my agent, Frank. We got together 12 years ago and we were—at the time, we were both kind of struggling, just kind of making ends meet. We made a pretty good career for the last seven, eight years riding for Kenny.

“…We have learned the program. With the first-timers and the horses like that, we know they don’t need to win the first time out. If they are really, really good, they will overcome just the little things, that they will get in trouble and stuff like that and they will be able to overcome it.”

Saturday, Hernandez followed a formula made famous by three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel, who was the seventh and most recent rider to sweep the Oaks and Derby in 2009. Clinging close to the inside rail to save ground, Hernandez had paint on his boot by the end of the race according to McPeek. Given his miniscule margin of victory, every inch he saved proved to be crucial. 

“I had no doubt that he was going to get him around there in perfect order,” McPeek said. “He’s the difference in winning and losing today, for sure.”

May 4, 2024: Kentucky Derby 150...<br> Mystik Dan (inside) Brian Hernandez up, holds off lat charging Sierra Leone (L) and Forever Young, to win the 150th running of the Gr.1 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs...
Photo: Rick Samuels

Brian Hernandez Jr. on Mystik Dan (far right) holds on for the win in the Kentucky Derby with a ground-saving ride

He is McPeek’s go-to guy pretty much everywhere he goes.

“Maybe I will go to Saratoga and I will ride some other riders and go, ‘Boy, I miss Brian. I miss Brian,’ because he doesn’t make very many mistakes. And I don’t want you to write that at all. I don’t want anybody to know how good Brian is.”

At this point, McPeek paused to allow for laughter.

“But I guess the cat’s out of the bag, isn’t it?” he said.

True, that.