Rafael Bejarano is the only jockey to have won at least one riding title at all five Kentucky racetracks — and he did it in the same year. That was 2004, when his then-record 12 victories at Kentucky Downs were eight more than runner-up Brian Hernandez. That same meet, Bejarano won a record six races out of eight mounts on Sept. 21, finishing second by a half-length and third by a total of a length in his defeats.
While Bejarano’s 12 meet victories was tied twice by Florent Geroux (2015-2016) and broken by Joel Rosario’s 17 last year, the six wins on a card remains a Kentucky Downs record.
“There were really good opportunities back then, Bejarano recalled. “All the trainers supported me a lot. I had a blessed year to win all five racetrack titles in one year. It opened my opportunities for California and other racetracks.”
Though he won multiple riding titles at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Ellis Park and Turfway Park, 2004 to date has been Bejarano’s only Kentucky Downs riding crown. He moved his tack to Southern California in 2007 to great success before returning to Kentucky in 2020.
“From then to now, it’s changed a lot,” Bejarano, a career winner of more than 4,300 races and $219 million in purses in a 20-year career, said of Kentucky Downs. “The track is completely different. It’s a better track; they work a lot with the track. It looks much better. Back then, a lot of jockeys would think about it twice before going there…. Jockeys from everywhere in the United States like to come to Kentucky Downs now. It’s more opportunity for the trainers and owners.”
Bejarano’s 28 career victories rank No. 10 all-time at Kentucky Downs. While it’s harder to win races now, he said you don’t have to win as many to do really well.
“Even if you finish second or third, the purse of the races are so high — maidens are $150,000 — they’re huge,” he said. “If you can finish second and third, if you can ride two, three, four, five races a day, it will make a living for you for a short meet.
“It’s one of the best meets in the United States, with the biggest purses. Everybody gets excited for those six days – seven this meet.”
The key to winning at Kentucky Downs?
“Horses always can surprise you at any track, especially at Kentucky Downs,” Bejarano said. “A lot of long shots win, first-time starters. As long as the horse feels comfortable on that kind of track — because it’s completely different from the other racetracks in Kentucky — that’s the key. If you have a quality horse, a horse ready for that racetrack, they will run good. I don’t care if they’re 20-1. At Kentucky Downs, you always have a chance if you’re in the race.”
Meanwhile, Hernandez remains all-time win leader with 55
Hernandez was in the midst of his Eclipse Award season as North America’s outstanding apprentice back in 2004. Bejarano might have whupped up on him that meet, but Hernandez went onto be Kentucky Downs’ all-time win leader at 55. That’s eight more career wins than No. 2 Julien Leparoux and nine more than Florent Geroux.
Hernandez has won two riding titles at Kentucky Downs, in 2008 and 2012. He actually added a bit of cushion to his career-win lead last year with four victories, headed by the $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Mile aboard Tiz the Bomb. Hernandez has won at least one race in each of the 16 Kentucky Downs meets he’s ridden except for going 0 for 4 in 2014.
Photo in news index: Rafael Bejarano rode California Angel to victory in a Kentucky Downs maiden race last year. Coady Photography