BALTIMORE - When the 85-year-old jockey agent met the 25-year-old rider from Mexico at a barbecue last December, not much was happening for either of them. It had been a brutal year for Ivan Puhich, who lost a son to a heart attack and endured complications after colon cancer surgery. Business in California was slow for Mario Gutierrez, who was thinking of returning to Vancouver, where he'd excelled at little Hastings Racecourse.
Puhich said he was bored and bummed out after not working for 18 months and told Gutierrez he would represent him if he liked how he rode. He did, so they teamed up. A month later, while owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill were having lunch at Santa Anita, Gutierrez won a race. Like Puhich, Reddam liked his style.
"Paul said, 'Who is that kid?' '' said O'Neill, who had no idea. "I knew his agent. Ivan Puhich is a legend, and I knew Ivan had him.''
Reddam and O'Neill were looking for a jockey for I'll Have Another, a 3-year-old who hadn't raced since September. "I had Mario come work the colt,'' O'Neill said, "and they got along beautiful.''
If you're a "meant to be" person, this is your kind of fairy tale. First time out, Gutierrez and 43-1 shot I'll Have Another won a stakes Feb. 4, and two months later took the Santa Anita Derby by a nose. On May 5, they became international celebrities by pulling off a 15-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby. Next is Saturday's Preakness, where victory would set up a possible Triple Crown.
"Mario and I have talked many times about how amazing this run is,'' O'Neill said. "Who knows if we'll ever have a horse like this again, so we just want to enjoy every minute of it.''
No sport equals horse racing for unlikely alliances among people of different backgrounds. As a teenager in 1945, Puhich was a Marine fighting at bloody Okinawa. At 14, Gutierrez was riding quarter horses in match races in Mexico. O'Neill wasn't involved with horses growing up, and Reddam was an academic.
O'Neill, 43, has led the standings at 28 Southern California meetings and won three Breeders' Cups since taking out his trainer's license in 1994. That was eight years after his racetrack debut as an 18-year-old hot walker who said he knew next to nothing about thoroughbreds. His first star was Lava Man, who earned more than $5 million after O'Neill claimed him for $50,000. Now, at 11, the gelding is O'Neill's stable pony and I'll Have Another's constant companion.
Reddam's back story may be the oddest of all. The 56-year-old Ontario native taught philosophy at USC and Cal State-Los Angeles before going into, of all things, the mortgage business. He made his fortune by selling Ditech.com to General Motors in 1999, four years after he founded the lending company. He's owned thoroughbreds since 1988 and won the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (Wilko) and 2006 Turf (Red Rocks). Before that, Reddam bred harness horses as a sideline while teaching.
In the Derby winner's circle, the president of CashCall, a Southern California loan operation, showed he's well versed in more than the prime rate. Reddam quoted a deep thinker unknown to almost everyone in the crowd of 165,307. "Ludwig Wittgenstein said, 'After all the philosophical problems have been solved, nothing of importance will have been accomplished.' So we got into horse racing.''
Reddam has been an O'Neill client since 2004. "I just feel like we have very good chemistry,'' Reddam said. "The Doug O'Neill team is a lot of fun and tries to remember that racing is supposed to be fun first. We don't come from the bluest of blood for horse racing, but that's OK.''