A happy Cinco de Mayo

May, 5, 2012
05/05/12
9:08
PM ET
Jockey Mario Gutierrez on I'll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.Getty ImagesMario Gutierrez and I'll Have Another are Kentucky Derby champions.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Make sure you know how to pronounce Gutierrez, and memorize how to spell it, too. You haven't heard the last of a young jockey with that name, one who rode at Churchill Downs for the first time in his life on Saturday and won the Kentucky Derby.

"I wasn't going to come here and melt down," Mario Gutierrez said after perfectly piloting 15-to-1 shot I'll Have Another to a 1.5-length Derby victory. "The horse is so professional, so I prepared myself to be at the same level as the horse."

Now 25 years old, this shy, young rider grew up riding quarter horses as the son of a jockey on a small farm in Veracruz, Mexico. In 2005, he started racing thoroughbreds at Hipodromo de las Americas, and the next year he immigrated to Canada to ride at Vancouver's Hastings Racecourse. He didn't speak a word of English -- his old agent Wayne Snow joked to The Vancouver Sun that the first phrase he taught the jockey was, "Nice horse, wanna ride him back?" -- but his riding did the talking for him.

In 2006, he was the track's leading apprentice with 91 winners, and he morphed that success into a riding title as a journeyman there in 2007, and in 2008 he lost it on the last day of the meet.

In 2011, Gutierrez made his first trip to Southern California after cutting his teeth at Golden Gate Fields in the North. It was at Santa Anita that owner J. Paul Reddam saw him win a race. He was looking for a rider for I'll Have Another, who was not considered one of the top 3-year-olds at the time, in his season debut in the $250,000 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.

"Paul said, 'Let's give the kid a chance,'" trainer Doug O'Neill recalled. "Thank you, Paul, because this kid can really ride."

Three races later -- they won the Lewis at odds of 43-1 before taking the Santa Anita Derby at odds of 4-1 -- the rest is history.

"When we asked him to come work the horse -- and he worked brilliantly -- he told his agent, Ivan Puhich, on the way home, 'I will never ride that horse again,'" O'Neill said. "Ivan said, 'Why did you say that?' And Mario told him, 'That's a runnin' son-of-a-gun, there's no way they're going to put me on him.'"

Gutierrez, who fittingly won the Derby on Cinco de Mayo, said he knew few people believed he would win heading into the Derby. He didn't talk to the other jockeys much, didn't really ask for advice. He kept his focus and prepared for the races, and when those gates sprang open he kept his cool.

"Pretty much all my life I've been riding horses, but nobody knows where I spend my six years of riding in Vancouver," Gutierrez said, his voice breaking a little at the end. "Top trainers, top owners, of course they're not going to know anything about me. But I'm glad this happened to me. I think we all need the opportunity and great things can happen."

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