On the first Saturday in May, nearly 30C in the early evening, some big billowy clouds above, jockey Mario Gutierrez sat atop horse I’ll Have Another in the No. 19 post at Churchill Downs in south Louisville.
It was not an ideal position to start the Kentucky Derby, far to the outside of the horses considered likely victors in the 138th running of the iconic U.S. horse race.
Gutierrez was a nobody, a young jockey from Mexico by way of Vancouver. And no horse had ever won the derby from the No. 19 post. It was a decided disadvantage: starting so far from the track rail meant more distance to cover. Yet Gutierrez was exactly where he felt most comfortable.
Great jockeys have to be light, strong, fearless – riding 600-kilogram beasts at upward of 60 kilometres among a galloping crowd of competitors, amid churning swirls of dirt and dust. But a jockey’s crucial talent, what those who know Gutierrez best call his “magic hands” – his feel for the reins, his intuitive sense of a horse – is something immeasurable. It is a kind-of reiki, the power of touch, the calming, the marshaling, the unleashing of energy. Horses feed off energy, sense fear, sense confidence, and thoroughbreds are especially nervous animals, particularly difficult to rein.
As the gates of the Kentucky Derby burst open, as a catapult of 20 horses shot forth – “annnnnnnd they’re offfffff!” – Gutierrez easily guided I’ll Have Another ahead of those directly around him. He made a diagonal beeline to settle in at the front of the middle of the pack, on the outside, out of trouble, running free and clear at the quarter-mile post behind a group of five horses. And, for much of the mile-and-a-quarter race, there Gutierrez remained, patient and comfortable.
Gutierrez is an amazing story on every front, coming from rural Mexico to six successful years in Vancouver. Then, last Christmas, through a chance encounter with an 85-year-old ex-marine who was recovering from colon cancer, Gutierrez got to ride I’ll Have Another, an underestimated horse whose owner, J. Paul Reddam, grew up in Canada, was a philosophy professor before he made a turn into high-interest lending and horse racing.
But the Gutierrez story is about more than long-shot chance, tall tales, and unlikely characters. At Hastings Park in east Vancouver, Gutierrez honed his mastery of the elusive voodoo-like arts of his trade. He won more than 600 races and rode several thousand times. He perfected his craft, race by race. He learned horses. And while no one ever thought to consider the distance from Hastings to horse racing’s summit, the Triple Crown – a trot to Mars would have been more realistic – Gutierrez forged an individual style and strategy at Hastings, a bullring of a track, five-eights of a mile, less than half that of the Kentucky Derby.
Run on the outside, stay out of trouble, stay patient.
It takes nerve to be patient.
Then, when the opening is spied, when you know your horse is ready, and able, strike.
“He would give me goose bumps, how beautiful he would ride,” says Sandra van Oostdam, a groom in the Vancouver stable for which Gutierrez raced. She translated for the 5-foot-4 jockey when he arrived in Vancouver without money at 19, and housed him for a few early months.
“He’d never believe me when I told him, ‘There’s greatness in you.’ I could sense it. He’s a very quiet rider and you could see how the horses settled for him. It’s almost like the horse is waiting for Mario to say, ‘Go.’ And the horse goes.”
On the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby, as the horses bounded toward and around the far turn, the prerace favourite, Union Rags, got in trouble. He’d already had a bad start and then, racing on the rail, Union Rags was bumped by another horse, slipped back, and fell out of contention.
I’ll Have Another casually sped on. He had found a good spot, and was running near the rail, in seventh and in the clear.
At the final turn, Gutierrez led I’ll Have Another round wide on the far outside, only one horse farther from the rail. At just 300 yards to the finish, and a long five-or-so lengths behind leader Bodemeister – another favourite, running toward a wire-to-wire victory – Gutierrez whipped his horse, several swats, fewer than most would make.
I’ll Have Another burst ahead, snatched second place and, with 200 yards to the finish, Gutierrez coaxed another burst from the three-year-old chestnut colt. With 50 yards to go, Gutierrez was neck-and-neck with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, aboard Bodemeister, and then Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another were gone, first across the line.