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Gutierrez ready to chase horse racing's biggest prize

Kentucky Derby winning jockey Mario Gutierrez, of Mexico, laughs during a news conference before meeting fans at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday May 13, 2012.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The border to the United States is across the street, the truck crossing into Washington State south of Vancouver. It's Thursday evening, 8 p.m., and inside The Derby Bar and Grill the world's hottest jockey fields some questions.

This is a second home to Mario Gutierrez, the 25-year-old jockey who grew up in rural Mexico and raced at Hastings Park in East Van from 2006 through 2011. He lived the past four years, until last fall, nearby The Derby Bar with horse owner Glen Todd, whose main business is the customs broker operation in the building to which his restaurant is attached.

No one ever thought to measure the distance from Hastings Park to the Triple Crown - a canter to Mars would have been more realistic - but Gutierrez stands barely a week away from his shot at history, horse racing's biggest prize, the Triple Crown.

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After Gutierrez stunned the racing world when he won the Kentucky Derby atop horse I'll Have Another, he came back to Vancouver to decompress. Now, with the Preakness won, and plans to fly to New York on Monday for the Belmont Stakes on June 9, Gutierrez is back where he feels more comfortable.

Dressed in grey, collared shirt open at the neck, vest, pants, a silver chain and crucifix on his neck, the 5-foot-2 jockey was loose, the 25-year-old looking much more like a teenager. In the front of the bar, in front of a bank of cameras, reporters, and numerous patrons, Gutierrez drew easy laughs.

One wag asked if there would be 15-1 odds again on Gutierrez and his horse in the Belmont, as there was at the Kentucky Derby.

"You know," he smiled. "I just don't think so."

Many laughs.

Belmont Park - that long, long mile-and-a-half to the Triple Crown - is the first time Gutierrez and I'll Have Another are the favourites. It will be their fourth race; their first, in early February, the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles, the odds were 43-1.

At the Belmont, they are heavy, heavy favourites at 7-5, in part because the vanquished Bodemeister, overtaken in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness at the last moment by I'll Have Another, will not run the race.

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The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978 and 11 horses since have failed in the Belmont. There are swirls of chatter about Gutierrez and I'll Have Another, who both will run for the first time at Belmont, which is outside New York City on Long Island.

Gutierrez is unperturbed. He doesn't much care or plan to hang out with the other jockeys before the race. He knows he's been badmouthed a lot during this extraordinary run, too green, too weak, etc.

"A lot of people want to give you advice," Gutierrez said Thursday night. "I'm not going to change the way I ride."

Detractors include jockey Kent Desormeaux, who was inducted to the racing hall of fame in 2004 - when Gutierrez was 17 and racing quarter horses in his rural village of El Higo in the state of Veracruz, some 400 kilometres north of Mexico City.

Desormeaux, four years ago, was on the verge of the Triple Crown but his horse Big Brown faltered on the final turn.

Last week, the jockey declared Gutierrez and I'll Have Another - "will be lost" in their first race at Belmont.

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But perhaps Ron Turcotte is a greater authority. The rider of Secretariat - whose iconic 1973 run at the Belmont is one of the sport's greatest moment - believes in Gutierrez.

"I don't think it will be a problem at all. Mario Gutierrez is a very cool rider," said Turcotte, who was born in New Brunswick and first raced in Toronto, said on Wednesday in a call with reporters, a conversation with Triple Crown winners, owners, trainers and riders of the big horses of the 1970s.

For I'll Have Another, already at Belmont Park, there was a brief scare Thursday, a runaway horse nearly crashed into I'll Have Another out for a walk on the track with an exercise rider.

Secretariat handily won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness - before his monumental win at Belmont Park. I'll Have Another, and Gutierrez, have crafted careful, and perfectly timed, come-from-behind, on-the-outside wins, barely edging Bodemeister.

Thursday night, Gutierrez remembered marvelling at his own Preakness win, where it came down to the wire and looked, several furlongs earlier, that Bodemeister had too much of a lead. Gutierrez admitted, as Bodemeister pushed ahead, "For one second, you know, I got a little bit upset."

He pushed away that rare flash of worry and coaxed the burst from I'll Have Another for the final sprint.

Watching a replay of the race, on his laptop at his hotel as he got ready for dinner, Gutierrez almost couldn't believe it, catching Bodemeister at the last possible moment. Even the replay got his heart pumping, "100 miles per hour," he said, smiling.

"I was like, 'Oh my god, Mario, you're not going to get there.'"

Again, many laughs from the assembled crowd at Derby Bar and Grill.

The fairy tale, however, has one dark edge. His family back home in El Higo hasn't been able to attend America's most-storied tracks to see Gutierrez ride in the biggest races. Nor will they be at the Belmont as Gutierrez makes his run for a victory that would vault him into horse racing's pantheon, a hero of the American sport.

It isn't exactly easy for Mexicans to get visas to the U.S. So his family will watch from afar.

"The United States," Gutierrez said - no smile on his face this time - "doesn't just give out visas."

It was the one off note an extraordinary story, Gutierrez's climb, a stew of chance and skill, from his start in Mexico, through six years of winning hundreds of races in Vancouver, to the luck that unfolded after Christmas last year that put the jockey atop I'll Have Another.

"You're going to think I'm crazy," Gutierrez said of his connection with his horse. "He understands me. He thinks the same way I think."

And then, Gutierrez, a jockey, a showman, playing for the home crowd, delivered a line he's used before in the past couple weeks but one that's been a winner every time.

"He's a fighter. He's got the biggest heart ever. He likes to win."

Applause, and laughs.

Bring on the Belmont.

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