Not many people get to celebrate their birthday with a $270,000 payday, but that's exactly what Brian Hernandez Jr. did when he guided Fort Larned to victory in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on his 27th birthday.
"It was one heck of a birthday," said Hernandez, who took a red-eye flight back from California and arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, at 7:30 a.m. (EST) Sunday. "It's just starting to sink in now. It's pretty special."
Hernandez, who rode Neck 'n Neck to victory in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill Downs the day prior to the Classic, said he felt like he was riding the winner with a quarter of a mile remaining.
"When we got to the quarter-pole, he threw his ears back at me and I knew I still had a ton of horse. When I called on him and hit him left-handed, he switched leads. That's when I thought I had a huge chance of winning. When he heard Mucho Macho Man coming at him, he dug in and really held him off on his own.
"When we crossed the line, I said 'Oh wow! That really just happened!"
Hernandez, who has had little time to sleep, let alone celebrate, since his Classic victory, said he will do some celebrating over the next couple of days, when Churchill Downs is dark on Monday and Tuesday.
Joining Hernandez in the celebrations will surely be his agent, Frank Bernis.
"I really liked his position," Bernis said. "I think the difference was when Fort Larned broke good and took Game On Dude's spot (on the lead).
"It's the biggest win of my career, that's for sure. It would be the biggest win of a lot of people's careers. Other than the (Kentucky) Derby, this is the biggest race of the year."
Bernis has worked as Hernandez's agent since Keeneland's Spring Meet in April.
The Churchill Downs backstretch on the morning after the Breeders' Cup was full of activity and smiles, but perhaps the biggest grins were at the barns of trainers Ian Wilkes, Dale Romans, Buff Bradley and Steve Asmussen.
At the home of Classic winner Fort Larned, Wilkes' barn foreman Carlos Tinajero couldn't have been happier with the colt's winning effort.
"It was a very good race," Tinajero said. "I had confidence in this horse and thought he would run a big race out there."
Tinajero said he didn't celebrate too much Saturday night.
"The race was so late (8:30 p.m. EDT) and I had to be at the barn early this morning," Tinajero said with a smile.
Tinajero also said Fort Larned should be back at Churchill Downs around 10 p.m. His plane was expected to land in Louisville at 9:30 p.m.
The barn of Romans, who saddled Little Mike for a victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf, was relatively quiet.
"Maybe we'll do some celebrating later," assistant trainer Baldemar Bahena said. "He ran a great race and he might be the turf champion. He won the (Grade 1) Arlington Million and the Breeders' Cup Turf."
Little Mike is on the same plane from California and is scheduled to be back at Churchill Downs Sunday night. He will be joined by stablemates Dullahan, Shackleford, Moonwalk and Summit County.
One of the biggest smiles on the backside this morning was on the face of Donna Ashabraner, who works in the Bradley barn, where Groupie Doll is expected to arrive Saturday night.
"I had my Groupie Doll shirt on for the race," Ashabraner said. "I was crying when she won. It was so great and everyone was so happy. We had a little party at the barn for her last night."
Asmussen won the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile with Tapizar on Saturday and things were calm, yet positive, at his Churchill Downs barn while his employees appeared focused on preparing their non-Breeders' Cup horses for their next starts.