Column: 'Wasn't going to come here and melt down'
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Everybody knows Mario Gutierrez now.
But a half-dozen years ago, long before anyone in the thoroughbred game knew much about him, the Canadian horsemen who discovered the promising teenage rider at a dusty track in Mexico knew Gutierrez already possessed an unusual gift:
No matter the race, he always seemed to have some horse left in the stretch.
So it happened one more time Saturday, when the 25-year-old Kentucky Derby rookie coaxed another gear from I'll Have Another for a sizzling stretch drive and roared past Bodemeister in the final furlong at Churchill Downs. Only a year ago, Gutierrez watched the race at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, Canada, wondering if his title as leading rider at the out-of-the-way circuit would lead anywhere.
"Top trainers, top owners, of course, they're not going to know anything about me," Gutierrez said.
"But I'm glad that this happened to me. I think we all need opportunity and great things can happen. ... The horse is so professional, so I prepare myself to be at the same level as the horse.
"This is the great opportunity of my life. I wasn't going to come here and melt down," he said, "that's for sure."
Not after the odyssey Gutierrez endured just to reach the starting gate. He grew up in Veracruz, Mexico, the son of a quarterhorse trainer and jockey, and climbed into the saddle at 12. The youngster competed in match races at 14 and then convinced his parents to let him move to Mexico City after he finished high school, hoping to hone his skills against tougher jockeys for bigger purses.
It was there, in 2006, that Glenn Todd and Troy Taylor spotted Gutierrez, offered him a job at the Hastings track, and became his second family.
"We liked him from the beginning," Taylor told the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this week. "He's such a great kid, and he can really ride."
Even though Gutierrez was under contract to Taylor and Todd, they knew he was ready for bigger challenges and put him together with well-known jockey agent Ivan Puhich. Soon after, Doug O'Neill, trainer of I'll Have Another, was having lunch with the colt's owner, Paul Reddam, and deciding where to run the horse.
"But we're not going to get (Rafael) Bejarano or (Joel) Rosario, so who do you want to get?" O'Neill recalled their conversation.
"Just as we were talking, Mario won a race. Paul said, 'Who is that kid?' I knew his agent. I knew Ivan had him. I couldn't pick Mario out of a lineup at the time. I had him come work the colt. They got along beautiful. Paul said, 'Let's give the kid a chance.' "
They did for the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in February, where the chestnut colt's cheap price — I'll Have Another sold for $11,000 as a yearling — and his still-unknown jockey combined to send him off at 43-1. After the upset win there, I'll Have Another knocked off favorite Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby last month, beginning to make a name for both himself and his rider.
Now O'Neill is just hoping that Gutierrez "doesn't get too big to where we can't get him."
"Usually what happens with these jockeys," he added. "They (get) so popular and you're like, 'Wait a second, did you forget about us, Mario?'"
But it's tough to imagine that happening with Gutierrez anytime soon. Asked whether he received any advice from his fellow jockeys ahead of what seemed like an enormous step up in class, he replied, "I came here focused. I came here prepared. I know this is huge. I did my homework on my own."
As for whether those same jocks have any advice for him now, Gutierrez demurred again. "I haven't talked after the race with any other jockey, so I don't know what they're going to say."
What they should say is "great ride" and leave it at that. No Derby winner had ever come from the No. 19 post on the far outside, but Gutierrez was smart enough to let I'll Have Another ease into the race and then pick his spots.
"He's so smart, he does everything pretty well. I just waited for him, push him a little bit to have that spot, and then everything from then on, was from the horse," Gutierrez said.
With way too much modesty.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.