The odds against two friends from Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, N.Y., teaming for racing success at Tampa Bay Downs would seem to be sky-high.
But trainer Sandino R. Hernandez, Jr., and his main client, owner Dennis Amaty, have climbed the standings with a relatively small but quality group of horses. With the highest winning percentage of any trainer with 10 or more starts (9-for-26, almost 35 percent), Hernandez is the Zerillo’s Italian Grill Trainer of the Month.
Amaty – who owns Broward Aviation Services, a company which sells airplane parts – owns 16 of the 18 horses in Hernandez’s barn, running them under Amaty Racing Stables.
“Dennis is pretty much a hands-on owner, but 95 percent of the time he’ll let me have the final say when it comes to the racing end,” Hernandez said. “When we do butt heads, it will only last for a couple of minutes, and then everything will be fine.
“The problem that comes up sometimes is that we have a close friendship, but it’s also a business, and you have to remember to separate the two,” Hernandez said. “So if we have a difference of opinion, we discuss it and share our opinions and try to work it out together.
“Most of the time, he’ll let me do what I think is right for the horses,” Hernandez added.
The best horse in Hernandez’s barn is Nesso, a 4-year-old filly who won last year’s Gasparilla Stakes and finished second in the Suncoast Stakes while trained by Herman Wilensky (Hernandez served as Wilensky’s Tampa Bay Downs assistant during the 2013-2014 meeting). Amaty had claimed Nesso for $25,000 from her maiden victory at Calder in Miami in June of 2013.
Last September, three races after being transferred to Hernandez, Nesso earned $48,000 for a third-place finish in the Grade III, $500,000 Charles Town Oaks. In her first race since on Jan. 24 at Tampa Bay Downs, Nesso ran away and hid from a field of older fillies and mares going six-and-a-half furlongs on the dirt in an allowance/optional claiming event.
“I classify her as a racehorse,” Hernandez said. “You can ride her the way you like, and she can do anything – run on dirt or turf, go short and go long.”
Nesso, who had a pair of stakes placings in California as a 2-year-old and competed in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita, has earned almost $200,000.
Other top Hernandez-trained runners include Unstoppable U, a 6-year-old stakes-winning gelding who finished sixth in the 20123 Belmont Stakes and won an allowance/$32,000 optional claiming race here last month; Houston Bull, a hard-knocking 8-year-old gelding who won a seven-furlong allowance/optional claiming race here Saturday; and Grey by You, claimed back by Hernandez and Amaty for $25,000 from trainer Jamie Ness.
“I’ve got an opportunity here where I have some nice horses and they all try, and that’s what counts,” said Hernandez, who eked out a living on the New York circuit for years after going out on his own in 1998.
“Training in New York is very difficult. If you don’t have the right owners to give you the right horses, it’s an uphill battle. A lot of the big-name trainers have the majority of good horses, and if you have a good (claiming) horse, there is a good chance it will be claimed. It’s hard to make a name for yourself.”
Sandino has two sons, 11-year-old Brian and 2-year-old Alex, who currently live with his girlfriend Crystal, their mom, in south Florida.
His father, Panamanian Sandino Hernandez, rode and trained for many years and exercised horses for his son into his 60s until suffering a stroke in 2001. He still lives in New York.
Hernandez’s cousin, Ruben Hernandez, was a top New York jockey who won more than 2,200 races and is best known for riding Coastal to victory in the 1979 Belmont, derailing Spectacular Bid’s Triple Crown attempt.
As boys, young Sandino and Amaty attended the races together often, usually tagging along after Sandino’s father. While Amaty gravitated toward the business world after graduation, Hernandez worked as an assistant for several New York trainers, and credits Phil Serpe with teaching him strong organizational skills and the importance of attention to detail. But most of his lessons were handed down from his father during his formative years.
“The one thing my father always taught me is that you need dedication to be successful. He taught me to keep an eye on every horse in the barn and how to read them,” Hernandez said. “That, and also to try to keep them happy. They will tell you how they’re doing, and that’s how you make the decision whether to go forward with a horse or back off its training.”
Hernandez emphasizes that a strong barn crew is essential to his success.
“I always say that we are ‘Team Amaty’ and ‘Team Hernandez,’ ” he said. “The three grooms I have and my exercise rider are all very good. From the hotwalker to the pony girl to the jockey, everybody plays an important part.”
Hernandez and Amaty reunited in 2000 and are rapidly becoming known on the west coast of Florida. “I always wanted to be a trainer. I like being around the horses and love their competitiveness,” Hernandez said. “When I see one of my horses cross the finish line first, I feel a sense of accomplishment.
“I like to win and in order to attract other clients, you have to win,” he added. “If owners see a trainer winning at a 20-percent clip, they’ll come and talk to you.”
Several standout performances were turned in on today’s card. In the third race, 5-year-old horse Developer pulled away late for a length victory from Allie’s Event in 1:41.77 for a mile-and-a-sixteenth on the turf. Daniel Centeno rode the winner, who is owned by Lael Stables, Pat Madden, LLC and Ben P. Walden, Jr., and trained by Arnaud Delacour.
The fifth race, a mile-and-a-sixteenth turf contest for 3-year-old fillies, saw the regally-bred Tiger Ride roll to a three-and-a-quarter length victory from Scottish Sweetie. Leading jockey Antonio Gallardo rode Tiger Ride, who is owned by breeder Dixiana Farms, LLC and trained by Kellyn Gorder. The daughter of Candy Ride is 2-for-3.
Sunny Maria displayed strong potential in the sixth race, winning the six-and-a-half-furlong maiden special weight affair by more than nine lengths from Secret Stash. Owned by Timothy B. Turney and trained by Tom Proctor, Sunny Maris was ridden by Rosemary Homeister, Jr.
Homeister also won the eighth race on the turf on 3-year-old gelding Indygo Devil for owner Blackacre Farms, Inc., and trainer Kathleen O’Connell.
Gallardo added a second victory in the ninth and final race on 4-year-old gelding City Mudd, owned by Charles R. Patton and Gary G. Jackson and trained by Jackson.
Thoroughbred racing at Tampa Bay Downs resumes Thursday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:40 p.m. There is no turf racing.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.