By Gene Kershner

Special to the News

ARCADIA, Ca. – Not many jockeys can get as nice a birthday present as being the winning rider in the richest race in North America. Brian Hernandez Jr. celebrated his 27th birthday in style, winning the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Fort Larned ($20.80) in a thrilling stretch duel with the game Mucho Macho Man before a prime time television audience at Santa Anita Park.

Hernandez, who rides regularly at Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., has had quite an eventful year. It was his third win in four tries on the 4-year-old colt that won the 9-furlong Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. He won his 1,000th race at Ellis earlier this year in August and is newly married.

“It’s the greatest birthday ever. I always had a lot of confidence in him. Ian (Wilkes) and I talked about the race and he told me don’t take him out of his game and let him do whatever he wants to do. He has a good cruising speed and I just let him go,” said Hernandez Jr.

It’s been the year of the young jockey in thoroughbred racing as upstart Mario Gutierrez won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard I’ll Have Another, who is currently in Japan at stud. Now we have a new top rider on the scene with Hernandez Jr., who had a huge smile after the Classic win.

The well-traveled Fort Larned has been all over America this year, winning races at Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream Park, Prairie Meadows (Iowa), Saratoga, adding California to the list. He also made appearances at Churchill Downs finishing second in the Grade 2 Alysheba and at Belmont in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup has truly been a key race that has produced the last three Breeders’ Cup Classic winners, held in late September on Super Saturday. Fort Larned joined Drosselmeyer (2011) and Blame (2010) as horses coming out of that race. Fort Larned finished third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup this year behind Flat Out and Stay Thirsty, the same position Drosselmeyer finished in the race in 2011. Fort Larned is the son of E Dubai out of a Broad Brush mare.

Mucho Macho Man ran a tremendous race, finishing a half length behind the winner, trying valiantly to pass him in the deep stretch, only to be thwarted at the wire. He proved he can handle the mile and a quarter distance on Saturday, hopefully his connections will continue to keep him in training.

Trainer Kathy Ritvo was disappointed, but proud of her 4-year-old runner up. “What can you do? He ran a winning race. The other horse (Fort Larned) was a great horse today. He ran a great race. I’m so proud of my horse. He gave 100 percent today,” said Ritvo.

For 8-5 favorite Game on Dude, it just wasn’t meant to be. He was just off the two leaders as they approached the final turn, but started to fade as the top two runners pulled away from the pack to duel down the Santa Anita stretch. He wasn’t in his normal early position stalking the leaders and trainer Bob Baffert thinks it was the difference.

“I think the first eighth of a mile cost him the race. He wants to be right up there near the front and when he wasn’t, that was it for him. It was a tough day for me, but I’ve had tougher. It was a great two days of racing here and I was glad to be part of it,” said Baffert.

Indeed, it was a fabulous two days of racing at The Great Race Place, and a case could be made to make Santa Anita the permanent site of the Breeders’ Cup. The gorgeous weather and fabulous sight lines at the track make it a logical location for the two days of championship racing. The Breeders’ Cup will return to Santa Anita in 2013.

With the recent weather woes caused by Hurricane Sandy in the New York metropolitan area and snow at Woodbine yesterday, the argument was most likely strengthened. The last five Breeders’ Cups have been held either in California or at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

The win by Fort Larned sets up an interesting race for Horse of the Year. Wise Dan, winner of the BC Mile earlier in the day, will be in an interesting vote with duel Classic winner I’ll Have Another, winner of four Grade 1 races, albeit early in the racing year. I’ll Have Another was retired after his scratch at this year’s Belmont Stakes.

It’s been a tremendous year of thoroughbred racing nonetheless, starting with the excitement of I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown effort, the big turf victories by Wise Dan, and wrapping up with an exciting finish to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. For Brian Hernandez, Jr. it will be a year to remember and a win he will hope to build on as he tries to break into the upper echelon of thoroughbred riders. Saturday, he unwrapped the most expensive birthday present he ever received.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.