Jockey Mario Gutierrez wins Derby on first try
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The racing bug bit Mario Gutierrez hard when he was growing up. He rode horses in Vera Cruz, Mexico, on a farm where his father still works. He dreamed of going pro someday, and he broke in as a 12-year-old in local match races, just as Kentucky Derby winners Eddie Delahoussaye, Kent Desormeaux and Calvin Borel did many years before in Louisiana's Cajun country.
"My dad was a quarter horse rider in Mexico City,'' Gutierrez said. "We only rode in match races. He was training horses. I always wanted to be like my dad, so I asked him to teach me how to learn.''
From humble beginnings can come great achievements, and Saturday, the 25-year-old Gutierrez joined the Derby honor roll in his first try. He's 3-for-3, all in graded stakes, on I'll Have Another, a 15-1 shot who rallied to take the 138th Derby by 1½ lengths over Bodemeister.
"I came here focused, I came here prepared,'' Gutierrez said. "I know this is huge. I did my homework on my own.''
While Bodemeister and Hall of Famer Mike Smith rocketed through a mile in 1:35.19 on a steamy afternoon, the boyish-looking Gutierrez played his hand patiently. He never was farther back than seventh and was in position to move in upper stretch after Bodemeister, who was getting tired.
Trainer Doug O'Neill praised his jockey's shrewd strategy. "Mario just had great position, really had a trouble-free trip,'' O'Neill said. "I loved how the horse really stretched for him down the lane.''
Gutierrez left Mexico at 19 in 2005 and skipped over the United States to end up at obscure Hastings Race Course in British Columbia. His main trainer was Troy Taylor, who has led the Hastings standings for the past five years, and he helped Gutierrez dominate there since his arrival. Taylor and Gutierrez went to Golden Gate Fields, near San Francisco, during the winters after Hastings' meeting ended. Gutierrez's big break came when he rode a winner at Santa Anita while O'Neill and J. Paul Reddam, who owns I'll Have Another, were watching.
"Paul said, 'Who is that kid?' '' O'Neill said. "I know his agent, Ivan Puhich. I had him come work I'll Have Another and he and the horse got along great. Paul said, 'Let's give the kid a chance.' Thank you, Paul, because this kid can really ride.''
And the arrow in the dark hit the bull's-eye.
Gutierrez won the Grade II Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in I'll Have Another's 3-year-old debut. Two months later, they won the Santa Anita Derby by a nose over Creative Cause, who finished fifth Saturday. That was Gutierrez's first Grade I win. Little did he know the second would come so quickly, and on Cinco de Mayo, Mexico's national holiday, of all days.
"I think we all need opportunity and great things can happen,'' Gutierrez said. "I'm so thankful that this happened to me. This is the great opportunity of my life. I wasn't going to come here and melt down, that's for sure.''