Final Jockey Assignments Confirmed In 2017 Run For The Roses: Includes Three Louisiana Natives

by | 04.30.2017 | 3:05pm

Always Dreaming works under the Twin Spires with John Velazquez aboard.

The last of the Kentucky Derby riding assignments was confirmed on Sunday morning, and the current field of 20 is all booked up for Saturday’s Run for the Roses. The most recent addition is that of jockey Channing Hill aboard Fast and Accurate for trainer Mike Maker; Hill breezed the colt at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning, then announced the decision later in the morning on Twitter.

Tyler Gaffalione will be aboard the Todd Pletcher-trained Patch for Calumet Farm, it was also announced on Twitter Sunday morning. Pletcher’s other riders were announced over the past few weeks, with John Velazquez scheduled to team with Always Dreaming and Jose Ortiz to pilot Tapwrit.

Trainer Steve Asmussen confirmed his final Derby reinsmen on Saturday, naming Ricardo Santana to ride Untrapped and Corey Lanerie to ride Lookin at Lee. Florent Geroux had previously been named to ride Hence.

Late last week, trainer Dale Romans named Luis Saez as the replacement rider for the injured Robby Albarado aboard J Boys Echo.


Here is the full list of expected Kentucky Derby contenders and their riders, as of Sunday afternoon:

  • Always Dreaming (John Velazquez)
  • Battle of Midway (Flavien Prat)
  • Classic Empire (Julien Leparoux)
  • Fast and Accurate (Channing Hill)
  • Girvin (Mike Smith)
  • Gormley (Victor Espinoza)
  • Gunnevera (Javier Castellano)
  • Hence (Florent Geroux)
  • Irap (Mario Gutierrez)
  • Irish War Cry (Rajiv Maragh)
  • J Boys Echo (Luis Saez)
  • Lookin At Lee (Corey Lanerie)
  • McCraken (Brian Hernandez Jr.)
  • Patch (Tyler Gaffalione)
  • Practical Joke (Joel Rosario)
  • Sonneteer (Kent Desormeaux)
  • State of Honor (Jose Lezcano)
  • Tapwrit (Jose Ortiz)
  • Thunder Snow (Ire) (Christophe Soumillon)
  • Untrapped (Ricardo Santana Jr.).

Next up in order of preference: Royal Mo (Gary Stevens)

Albarado Fractures Lower Leg, Off J Boys Echo in Derby

Albarado Fractures Lower Leg, Off J Boys Echo in Derby
Photo: Coady Photgraphy

Robby Albarado

Jockey Robby Albarado sustained a fracture of his lower left tibia and fibula after falling from Chiltern Street at the beginning of the eighth race at Keeneland April 23 and will be off mounts for approximately three to four weeks, including Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) hopeful J Boys Echo, agent Rob Ebanks said.

The 5-year-old horse stumbled at the start of the 5 1/2-furlong race on turf unseating Albarado, who was immdiately attended to on the track. After being taken to first aid at Keeneland, he was then transported to UK Chandler Hospital.

In an official statement, Keeneland medical director Dr. Barry Schumer said: “Robby’s horse stumbled at the start of the race and Robby was thrown to the ground. He braced himself. He suffered an injury to his left ankle. He is being transported to UK Chandler Hospital (at the University of Kentucky in Lexington) for X-rays and further evaluation.”

Albarado underwent surgery April 24 at UK Chandler Hospital and had a rod and two pins inserted in his lower left leg, per Ebanks.


Native Son Harry Connick Jr. to Perform National Anthem at Derby

Churchill Downs Racetrack has announced that multi-platinum recording artist Harry Connick Jr. will sing our national anthem at the 143rd Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) on Saturday, May 6, 2017.

The multiple Grammy and Emmy award-winning entertainer and host and executive producer of his own nationally syndicated entertainment show HARRY, will perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” live for more than 160,000 fans at the Kentucky Derby. The performance will take place in the Kentucky Derby Winner’s Circle just after 5:00 p.m. EDT and be broadcast live as part of NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage.

“We are excited for Harry Connick, Jr. to perform our national anthem for the millions of Derby fans across the globe,” said Kevin Flanery, President of Churchill Downs Racetrack. “He’s one of the finest entertainers in the world and his performance will help make 2017 another great year at the Kentucky Derby.”

Harry Connick, Jr. has exemplified excellence in every aspect of the entertainment world. He has received recognition with multiple Grammy and Emmy awards as well as Tony nominations for his live and recorded musical performances, his achievements on screens large and small, and his appearances on Broadway as both an actor and a composer. The debut season of his new daytime TV Show HARRY was recently recognized with five Emmy nominations, including a nomination for best host.

Harry Connick Jr. is the ninth artist to perform the national anthem since Churchill Downs began the tradition in 2009.  Past artists who performed the national anthem are Lady Antebellum (2016), Josh Groban (2015), Jo Dee Messina (2014), Martina McBride (2013), Mary J. Blige (2012), Jordin Sparks (2011), Rascal Flatts (2010) and LeeAnn Rimes (2009).

Louisiana Native Hernandez Opts To Stick With McCraken in the Kentucky Derby


Jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. is the regular rider for a pair of 3-year-old colts with enough points to enter the Kentucky Derby starting gate, and knew he would have to choose which to ride if both came through their final prep races without issue. According to, Hernandez ultimately made the decision to stick with the Ian Wilkes-trained McCraken, despite the son of Ghostzapper’s third-place finish in the G2 Blue Grass Stakes.

“It was a really, really tough decision because both trainers and owners have been extremely loyal to me throughout the year,” Hernandez told The Courier-Journal. “It was one of those decisions that took a whole lot of time and a whole lot of talking with my agent. And we went with McCraken.”

That left Girvin, winner of both the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby, without a rider for the first Saturday in May. Despite several light-hearted rumors that trainer Joe Sharp’s wife, the famed female jockey Rosie Napravnik, might come out of retirement to ride the son of Tale of Ekati, the mount will go to Hall of Famer Mike Smith (Napravnik intends to stay retired, according to her Twitter account).


Both McCraken and Girvin have only lost once in their respective careers, but McCraken is more likely to be one of the top choices for the Derby because of relatively slow finish times in Girvin’s Fair Grounds efforts. Take nothing away from Girvin: the lightly-raced colt has done nothing wrong and just keeps improving with each start.

That said, McCraken’s third-place effort in the Blue Grass may have some fans questioning their belief in the previously undefeated star. Based on Wilkes’ record, including derby winners Unbridled and Street Sense (during which time he served as assistant to trainer Carl Nafzger) and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned, a sub-par effort prior to the big dance is nothing to be concerned about. Both Unbridled and Street Sense lost in the Blue Grass before winning the Derby, and Fort Larned finished third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup before winning the Classic.

Louisiana Native Hernandez Has Momentum, Confidence on His Side

Hernandez Has Momentum, Confidence on His Side
Photo: Coady Photography

Brian Hernandez Jr.

Brian Hernandez Jr. is quick to give credit where credit is due.

In recalling his 2016 season, when he celebrated a career-high eight graded stakes wins and tallied his second highest single-season earnings, the 31-year-old jockey talked about the wave of good fortune that came his way. Good mounts make for even better outcomes and in that vein, Hernandez said he “got lucky and had the right kind of horses for the right races.”

Quietly yet methodically, the 2004 Eclipse Award winner for outstanding apprentice jockey has taken an already full career that boasts more than 1,600 victories and started adding some key intangibles to it.

A year ago, he rode in his first Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) aboard 12th-place finisher Tom’s Ready. By the end of the evening Feb. 11, he could be linked with a horse considered the leading contender this season for the first Saturday in May.

Hernandez has been in the eye of big-race hype before, but there is no buildup that quite compares with being attached to an unbeaten, graded stakes-winning 3-year-old about to take his first step on the Kentucky Derby trail. As the regular rider for Janis Whitham’s homebred colt McCraken, the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay Downs, Hernandez could find his current groundswell of momentum dwarfed by what could come should his Ian Wilkes-trained mount prevail in his seasonal debut.

When Hernandez guided McCraken to victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs Nov. 26, it locked the son of Ghostzapper   in as a sophomore to watch for 2017 and sealed the best season for his jockey since he steered Fort Larned  —another Wilkes-trained, Whitham homebred—to victory in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). The $7,791,059 in earnings Hernandez amassed in 2016 was second only to his career-best total of $8,034,048 four years earlier.

WINCZE HUGHES: McCraken the Real Deal in KY Jockey Club

The Kentucky Club Jockey Club triumph capped off a whirlwind stretch that saw the Louisiana native win three graded stakes in as many days. The other victories came aboard Thatcher Street in the Nov. 24 River City Handicap (G3T) and Linda in the Nov. 25 Mrs. Revere Stakes (G2T).

“You know, it just kind of snowballed,” Hernandez said of 2016. “Last year was one of the first years where I had multiple really good horses and won multiple graded races, and the momentum just kept building. Even last May, I was getting on a lot more 2-year-olds than I normally do.

“We had a really big year with the 2-year-olds and some of the older horses I had been riding, they kind of stepped up and won a couple graded races. … And to have the owners put the confidence in me to ride their better horses, it helps a lot and that’s the biggest thing.”

Hernandez’s ability has long been acknowledged as a solid presence on the Louisiana and Kentucky circuits, not that anyone could ignore him much after he racked up 243 wins during his Eclipse Award-winning season. It often takes a fortuitous pairing for an upstart jockey to gain access to that next, elite level, however. Appropriately enough, Hernandez cites his association with Fort Larned as that catalyst.

He gained the mount on the future multiple grade 1 winner in the 2012 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap (G3), when the colt’s previous rider, Julien Leparoux, was committed to pilot Successful Dan in the same spot. The chemistry was instant as Hernandez booted Fort Larned to victory both that day and during his subsequent start in the Whitney Invitational Handicap (G1) in the run-up to their Breeders’ Cup heroics.

MITCHELL: Fort Larned Wins Thrilling BC Classic

In addition to notching the first grade 1 victories of his career, Hernandez was also building a relationship with the Wilkes barn that has evolved him into the go-to rider for the former assistant to Hall of Famer Carl Nafzger.

“He understands what I’m trying to do, and he’s a great asset to my barn in helping and developing horses,” Wilkes said. “He’s good and he just knows how to put a horse in position to win a race.”

“It’s been a great working relationship, because riding for guys like Ian and Carl, they entrust me on some of the better horses and they’re easy to talk to,” Hernandez added. “It makes it to where it’s a team effort, where you don’t have any pressure going forward, like ‘Oh man, if I mess this up, I might not get another chance.’ With Ian and Carl, they are always behind you. Even in the big races … it’s ‘Let’s look at the bigger picture and get them to the next step.'”

Wilkes has plainly stated that the Sam F. Davis is not the end goal for McCraken. He doesn’t want the bay colt coming too much into his own before the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Hernandez has already compiled a career dotted with successes many will never get to the opportunity to experience. Like his late-running mount, momentum has been his friend in recent times, a powerful surge brought on by inherent talent that is being given a chance to reach a career pinnacle.

“We’re just going to try and get McCraken (to the Derby) and let him showcase how good he is,” Hernandez said. “I think the biggest thing we have to do is make sure it’s not any of us that stops him from running his best race. Just stay out of his way and let him take us there. But it’s excitement, really. There is no nervousness.”

No Shortage of Louisiana Connections in the 2016 Kentucky Derby

As always, Louisiana native sons are scheduled to ride in the run for the roses on the first Saturday in May.


Kent Desormeaux on Exaggerator

Robby Albarado on Oscar Nominated (#13 on leaderboard)

B.J. Hernandez, Jr. on Tom’s Ready (#16 on the leaderboard)

Corey Lanerie on Mo Tom (#20 on the leaderboard)


Trainers from Louisiana also figure into this year’s Derby equation.

Keith Desormeaux (with brother Kent in the irons) trains Exaggerator

Dallas Stewart, who was raised in Louisiana trains Tom’s Ready

Tom Amoss, a native of New Orleans is the trainer of Mo Tom


New Orleans sports magnate Tom Benson, not satisfied with simply owning New Orleans Saints football franchise and New Orleans Pelicans basketball team has ventured into horse racing with G M B Racing; owner of both Tom’s Ready and Mo Tom.

If these aren’t enough reasons for Louisiana racing fans to be swept up with Derby fever, Gun Runner won the G2 Louisiana Derby and the G2 Risen Star Stakes at New Orleans Fair Grounds, and Exaggerator won the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot.