If you would have asked Mario Gutierrez just a few months ago where he thought he would be on May 5, 2012 the answer would have been whipping around the tight turns at Hastings Park. Hastings is a bullring track in Vancouver, Canada and about as far out of the spotlight as it gets, and it's where Gutierrez has called home since he arrived there from his native Mexico in 2006.
Instead, he will be at Churchill Downs riding the Santa Anita Derby winner, I'll Have Another, in the Kentucky Derby. Gutierrez never thought such a thing was possible. No one did. But thanks to a string of lucky breaks and some terrific rides, he will be aboard a live horse in America's greatest horse race, hoping to go from total obscurity to the Derby winner's circle in what seems like the blink of an eye.
At Hastings, Gutierrez found his way into the barn of owner Glenn Todd and trainer Troy Taylor, who dominate racing in Vancouver. Every fall, when Hastings closes up for the winter, the Taylor-Todd stable heads south to Golden Gate Fields and they bring Gutierrez with them. This time, the Golden Gate racing department decided not to give Taylor stalls. Had they, Gutierrez would have spent his winter riding non-descript horses in Northern California, never getting close to a Kentucky Derby contender.
Once Golden Gate turned them away, Todd decided to try Santa Anita. For Gutierrez, that would likely mean riding only the Todd-Taylor horses, winning a race or two and then heading back to Hastings in the spring.
"When I first got here, I was a little home sick and I couldn't wait to go back to Vancouver," Gutierrez said. "I got here in October. In October, November, December I was just working horses for Troy. I wasn't really interested in getting an agent because I know the competition is so strong. I was just happy to be here and to ride for Troy."
Gutierrez did hire an agent, 85-year-old Ivan Puhich, who started to sell his new client to other trainers. One of them was Doug O'Neill, but he says he knew so little about Gutierrez that he "couldn't have picked him out of a lineup."
Even when you get into the third, fourth, fifth, sixth guys at Santa Anita it's sometime hard to grab them and know you're actually going to have them for more than one race.
”-- I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill
But O'Neill needed a rider for I'll Have Another and knew he would never get any of Southern California's top jockeys because his 3-year-old was written off by most after a poor showing in the Hopeful. His owners, Paul and Zillah Reddam, had watched Gutierrez ride a few races and thought the 25-year-old showed promise. O'Neill decided to give him a chance.
"Even when you get into the third, fourth, fifth, sixth guys at Santa Anita it's sometime hard to grab them and know you're actually going to have them for more than one race," O'Neill said. "Mario was a guy we could get and move forward together."
O'Neill asked Gutierrez to work I'll Have Another and, after doing so, the jockey was convinced there was no way he would get the mount.
"I knew this was a really nice horse," he said. "We were driving back to Santa Anita [after working I'll Have Another at Hollywood Park] and I just started laughing and my agent asked me why? I said, 'They'll never let me ride this horse.' He asked why and I told him he was way too nice a horse for me to get the mount."
O'Neill stuck with Gutierrez and he guided I'll Have Another to 2 ¾-length win in the Feb. 4 Robert Lewis Stakes at odds of 43-1. It was a flawless ride and Gutierrez was every bit as good when I'll Have Another nosed out favorite Creative Cause to win the Santa Anita Derby.
"Everything has happened so fast for me," Gutierrez said.
Hastings opens its 2012 meet Saturday and Gutierrez won't be there. He's won just 11 races at the Santa Anita meet but when you win races like the Santa Anita Derby people pay attention.
"He's a Bejarano-ish, Rosario-ish kind of rider," O'Neill said, comparing him to Rafael Bejarano and Joel Rosario. "He's a top five, top 10 rider in Southern California for sure. There's no doubt in my mind that he should stay here."
That's exactly what Gutierrez plans to do. He's got a long way to go to catch Bejarano and Rosario in the standings, but he's a jockey that no longer believes anything is impossible.
A Weighty Issue
In a year when no one really stood out as the Horse of the Year it went to Havre de Grace, in part, because her owner and trainer never ducked a challenge in 2011. A few months later, it's hard to believe these are the same people bailing on the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn because their mare was assigned 123 pounds. True champions don't run from difficult assignments; they relish them.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.