On the backstretch of Santa Anita Park, amid rows of stables framed by the San Gabriel Mountains, jockey Mario Gutierrez reclines on a couch in a small office. His smile is easy. He’s talking horses with trainer Doug O’Neill, who’s working over a sheaf of papers.
Gutierrez has just returned from the track and a ride on a colt in training, the early morning sun burning through the haze. He has an intuitive feel for a horse’s personality. “He’s not sure where he’s going,” Gutierrez says, with a little laugh as O’Neill scribbles some notes. “Everything has to be his way – but he didn’t quit. And he comes back full of himself. Just pumped.”
Gutierrez doesn’t quit either. Beside the couch sits a framed photo of him, taken in May, 2012, in the final stretch of the Preakness Stakes, during Gutierrez’s dizzying ride to fame. The unknown jockey and the chestnut colt I’ll Have Another had been long-shot victors at the Kentucky Derby and won again at the Preakness, approaching a prize that hadn’t been captured in more than three decades – the elusive Triple Crown.
The young jockey was a sensation. He appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, was featured in promos for the Belmont Stakes, and his unlikely story made casual fans, for a moment, care about horse racing again.
But the day before the big race brought wrenching news: I’ll Have Another, injured, was scratched.
Gutierrez’s luck dissipated, too. He was slow to try to capitalize on his triumphs, and when he returned to the track fulltime, wins and even horses to ride proved difficult to come by. “He missed his window,” trainer Gary Mandella says.
Now, Gutierrez, 27, aims to pry that window open again. After struggling through the first half of 2013, he won a race at Santa Anita in late September that secured him a place in the Breeders’ Cup at the same track. Gutierrez races on Nov. 2 in the $2-million (all currency U.S.) Juvenile aboard Bond Holder, his top mount of the year – and a chance, perhaps, to begin to recapture his brief stardom.
The Gutierrez story raises the age-old question: Does the horse make the jockey, or does the jockey make the horse? There are undoubtedly super horses who take mediocre jockeys for championship rides, and superior jockeys who boost the fortunes of run-of-the-mill horses. Guetierrez hopes to prove he’s one of the latter.
“He’s just a young guy,” says trainer Vladimir Cerin, for whom Gutierrez sometimes rides. “I like him. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s always happy. He still has the opportunity.”
Mexico to Vancouver to California
Gutierrez grew up in the small Mexican town of El Higo, 400 kilometres north of Mexico City. His family lived on another man’s farm, for which his father was a caretaker. There were quarter horses, and the elder Gutierrez learned everything from riding to shoeing to training. Young Mario trailed behind his dad and the horses to local races, soaking up the pageantry, the party, the joy of victory.
“It just got the best of me,” he says. “I fell in love, I guess, at an early age.”
By the time Gutierrez was 14, he raced quarter horses on straightaway sprints in El Higo. After high school, he went to Mexico City. “I just wanted to see how good I was,” Gutierrez says. The first months were hard, sleeping in a tack room on the backstretch of Hipodromo de las Americas, but he got his shot. One win came, then another, and another. At 19, he was spotted by a Canadian from Vancouver, trainer Terry Jordan, who started the process to broker his move north.
Gutierrez arrived in Vancouver in 2006 speaking no English, but quickly came to dominate the small confines of Hastings Park. He won jockey-of-the-year titles under the tutelage of Glen Todd, a local owner who came to be a second father. In winters, Todd would take horses down to California, trying to push Gutierrez to make the jump.
At Santa Anita in late 2011, Paul Reddam, an owner, was sitting in the FrontRunner restaurant and saw Gutierrez win a race aboard a Todd horse. Reddam already had a top jockey, Joel Rosario, riding his promising two-year-old I’ll Have Another, but as the horse’s prospects appeared to dim, jockeys lost interest.