Walking Tall

We go behind the scenes as Kentucky Derby Jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. prepares for the pressure-packed race that could cement his place among the all-time greats.

Fastest two minutes in sports? Sure, for TV viewers and patrons attending the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby, it might seem that way. They won't have to consider much that occurs before or after the spectacle that is the Run for the Roses.

Meanwhile, for jockeys such as 31-year-old Brian Hernandez Jr. (riding McCraken), the Derby is but one of many tasks during a long week of work, one not dissimilar to the hundreds of weeks that preceded it in Hernandez's already-lengthy career. Hernandez and other jockeys have much to do before the eyes of the world focus on the Derby come Saturday evening.

As he prepared to embark on the pressure-packed two-minute task that could cement his place among the sport's all-time greats, Hernandez allowed ESPN to chronicle a few days as he sped through his world at Churchill Downs.

An exercise rider leads Hernandez and his horse to the track for a morning workout on Wednesday at Churchill Downs. For Hernandez, 31, horse racing is a family tradition. Brian Hernandez Sr. had a long career as a jockey at Delta Downs in southwest Louisiana, and his children Brian Jr., Colby and Courtney Hernandez all followed in their father's footsteps to work as jockeys as well.

Hernandez feeds a stable pony some candy at the barns on Thursday at Churchill Downs. The Louisiana-born Hernandez is looking to continue a tradition of Derby-winning jockeys from that state, one that includes Calvin Borel, Kent Desormeaux and Eddie Delahoussaye.

Hernandez is weighed in with his tack before Race 6 on Thursday at Churchill Downs. Hernandez, who earned his 400th Churchill Downs win in September, will be riding McCraken on Saturday in what will be his second Kentucky Derby appearance. He finished 12th last year aboard Tom's Ready.

Hernandez prepares in the jockey room before a race at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. Hernandez is a rising star in this room, having earned $2.5 million on his mounts in 2017.

Hernandez in the paddock with his mount, I'm with Miller, before Race 7 at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. Blackberry Farm won Race 7. I'm With Miller was an also-ran.

Hernandez rides I'm with Miller in Race 7 at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. Despite not adding to his win total, Hernandez is top-20 in earnings among jockeys in 2017.

Hernandez checks his phone in the jockey room at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. Hernandez Jr. is attempting to give trainer Ian Wilkes his first Kentucky Derby win.

Hernandez's mom, Stephanie, holds his 10-month-old son Benjamin while pulling some lint off her son's jacket. At left is Brian Hernandez Sr., Brian's father. Hernandez started his career at Churchill as a teenage apprentice jockey in 2004.

Hernandez stands before portraits of past Derby winners, including Bill Shoemaker (left) in the jockey lounge at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. The legendary Shoemaker, who died in 2003, was a four-time Derby winner.

Hernandez rides Peloncillo in Race 5 on Thursday at Churchill Downs. Peloncillo did not finish in the money in a race won by Darion's Dream.

Between races, Hernandez washes his face in the jockey room at Churchill Downs on Thursday. Each jockey has his own makeshift shower bucket for cleaning mud off his face. .

Hernandez puts on his jersey in the silks room at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. Hernandez's most famous ride to date came in a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic, aboard Fort Larned, on Nov. 3, 2012.

Hernandez warms up on an Equicizer at Churchill Downs on Thursday. Equicizers act as a riding simulator, allowing jockeys to warm up muscles and practice technique off the horse.

Hernandez talks to Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel (left) about his saddle at Churchill Downs on Thursday. Hernandez and Borel are connected for having both ridden 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra during her legendary run.

Hernandez takes a moment before Race 6, the Mercer Classic, at Churchill Downs on Thursday. Hernandez has raced more than 1,200 horses during his long career.

Hernandez races atop Prudence for Race 6, the Mercer Classic, at Churchill Downs on Thursday. Hernandez would finish in the money, as Prudence placed (finished second) with Hernandez aboard.

Detail of Hernandez's goggles at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. Jockeys typically wear multiple pairs of goggles and pull them off throughout the race as they get dirty.

Hernandez opens the door to his home on Thursday. Hernandez told reporters that the pressures of the Derby have reduced him to an average of about four hours of sleep per night in the lead-up to this race.

A portrait of legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker hangs in the stairwell of Hernandez's home in Louisville, as Hernandez and daughter Joshlyn play with horse balloons. Reminders of Hernandez's work are never far away, it seems.

Hernandez signs jockey paraphernalia on Friday for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which provides financial assistance to some 60 former jockeys who have suffered catastrophic on-track injuries. Since its founding in 2006, the fund has dispersed over $7 million to permanently disabled jockeys, most of whom have sustained paralysis or brain injuries.

Hernandez, at left in green and white, races to the finish with Romantic Vision for the fifth race of the day at Churchill Downs on Friday. Romantic Vision placed (finished second) under Hernandez's guidance, just as Prudence had the day before.

Jockeys riding in the Kentucky Oaks race pose for a group portrait at Churchill Downs on Friday. Hernandez is in the purple silks with silver stars.

The 2017 Kentucky Oaks race at Churchill Downs on Friday. Riding Wicked Lick, Hernandez (No. 9, in the purple silk with stars) finished 13th in the Oaks.

Hernandez leaves the steam room after racing in the 2017 Kentucky Oaks race at Churchill Downs on Friday. Less than 24 hours after the Oaks, Hernandez will race McCraken in the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.

Hernandez watches a replay of the Kentucky Oaks race in the jockey room on Friday. Hernandez finished eighth in the race aboard Dream Dance in 2016.

Before leaving the Downs on Friday, Hernandez purchases an Oaks program.

Hernandez heads to his car as he prepares to exit Churchill Downs on Friday. Another mostly sleepless night is likely ahead, before what will stand as one of the biggest races of the veteran jockey's career.

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