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.
"Among jockeys and agents there's very little loyalty," Reddam says. "It's their job to get on the best horse. They can be wonderful, but if you're 7 to 2 and another horse is 5 to 2, they'll try to get on the 5-to-2 shot in a second."
Born in Canada, Reddam was a philosophy professor who then made his money in online mortgages. He later moved into high-interest lending. He sensed Gutierrez was worth a wager and took him on. Reddam actually met Gutierrez 13 minutes before the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in February, 2012. The odds on I'll Have Another were 43 to 1. "He was very relaxed," Reddam says of the jockey. "I was kind of wondering, 'What did we get ourselves into here?'" The string of unlikely victories began.
The most startling came in May, at the fabled Kentucky Derby. Starting from the No. 19 post, staying patient, Gutierrez and I'll Have Another chased down the favourite Bodemeister for a rousing win, then staged another comeback victory at the Preakness. The Belmont beckoned, but the colt had tendinitis that would not only dash his chance at the Triple Crown but end his career.
For all the disappointment, though, Gutierrez was still hot. He could have returned to Southern California and hustled for three, four, five mounts a day – but chose to luxuriate instead. He spent much of the summer back in Vancouver, his second home. A romance with a woman he had known for some time blossomed. It was not until late last year that he moved back to Los Angeles fulltime.
"At the time, I knew what was going to make me happy," Gutierrez says of last year. "They told me I was crazy, because you don't do that when you just won the Kentucky Derby."
The racing year in Southern California is divided into several meets. At the winter meet at Santa Anita, Gutierrez didn't get much business outside of Reddam and O'Neill, and the horses he did ride were laggards. It made him look like a loser. "It was hard," he says. "I was hardly riding – I was riding horses but not winning."
One prevailing opinion was that Guitierrez had simply got lucky with I'll Have Another and had now tumbled back into mediocrity. By one standard measure, a jockey's take of the horse's winnings is 10 per cent – and many believe that's a fair gauge of the actual value a jockey brings to a race.
"Just another rider," says veteran jockey agent Joe Ferrer of Gutierrez. "A rider that fell onto a good horse and the horse carried him there."
Gutierrez was dropped by his agent, Craig O'Bryan. Gary Stevens, the veteran star, had come out of retirement two months before his 50th birthday and O'Bryan, an old friend, signed on. Stevens went on to win this year's Preakness.
Gutierrez ended up represented by 65-year-old Tom Knust. The dirt of Santa Anita is in Knust's blood; decades ago, he went to high school nearby. He devised a new plan for Gutierrez. First, in spring, the jockey would ride fewer horses – but horses with a shot to win. Then, at the prestigious summertime meet at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club near San Diego, he would hustle for rides with numerous owners and trainers.
"It's not so much your ability but the opportunities that you get," Knust says.
Gutierrez's connection with Reddam and O'Neill remains an ace, and an anchor. The owner and trainer are aiming for another Kentucky Derby, and Gutierrez is their man, but the tie has turned others away from the jockey. "A lot of the trainers on this circuit feel like Mario's beholden to that team," says trainer Mandella, who has put Gutierrez on some of his horses.
Mandella likes the young jockey. Gutierrez has a more complete sense of the 600-kilogram animals than others do. "He understands," Mandella says. "He understands what the movements of his body do to a horse in the running of a race. Even riders that have a lot of success, they don't understand how they're influencing a horse. They don't know their way around horses backwards and forwards, and Mario, I think, really does."
Get up and go to work
On a humid Saturday afternoon in June, Mike E. Smith wears a white tank top and jockey pants in a tunnel by the Hollywood Park track. Last year he rode Bodemeister to the second-place finishes behind Gutierrez and I'll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The two jockeys, Smith says, are friendly. But Smith, now 47, is a Hall of Famer, with more than 5,000 wins and $244-million in earnings. Gutierrez has won 760 times, mostly in the second tier of Vancouver's Hastings Park, with earnings of just $18-million.
"You know, when you're his age, you've got to get up and go to work," Smith says. "That's pretty much it. You want to ride all you can. You certainly don't want to just pick up any horse that comes along, but you want to put yourself out there on a day-in, day-out basis. Be able to compete – all day long."
At Del Mar, as planned, Gutierrez attracted more mounts from different trainers and owners – but his troubles continued. He was good enough to hold a place in the competitive Southern California racing scene but was still several lengths behind the best. For the Del Mar meet, Gutierrez finished eighth in wins, with 16, and had 124 mounts. The top five riders averaged 200 mounts, and the No.1, Rafael Bejarano, won 46 times on 242 mounts.
For Gutierrez, the near-Triple Crown year of Stewart Elliott is a cautionary tale. In 2004, the journeyman jockey rode Smarty Jones to victory in the Kentucky Derby, becoming the first rookie winner there in a quarter century. Elliott delivered again in the Preakness – then lost at Belmont Park by a single length. After that, Elliott fell back into relative obscurity, finishing 29th in earnings in his best year since; this year, he is 58th.
Gutierrez is below that, at 64th on the money list, with $2.96-million in earnings as of late October. That is a marked improvement, though, from early June, when he was at barely $1-million and ranked 102nd. His gains came in part for his continued knack for doing well in big races, such as a second-place finish last year at the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
He qualified for this year's Juvenile on Sept. 28, another warm, sunny day in Los Angeles. A long shot at 10 to 1, Bond Holder, with Gutierrez aboard, started slow at Santa Anita. At the three-quarter mile mark, nearing the finish of the 1 1/16-mile race, Gutierrez and his two-year-old colt were in sixth place, seemingly out of contention. Then, riding on the outside, closing ground as the wire approached, Gutierrez steered his horse around the final turn and pushed for the finish. He won, crossing 21/4 lengths ahead of jockey Bejarano and Dance With Fate.
It was a familiar script, and it reinforced the faith of Reddam and O'Neill, who believe Gutierrez is the real deal: someone who can take promising horses and ride them to the winner's circle. And it evoked Gutierrez's victories of last year, most memorably the Kentucky Derby. His smile lights up at the thought of the Louisville race: snatching victory before the wire, in front of a then-record crowd of 164,858, beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs. "I was like, 'Holy Christ, I'm just about to win the biggest race ever.'"
A decade earlier, when he was sleeping in the tack room at the track in Mexico City, the 17-year-old's dreams were to make a living at iconic Santa Anita, and to race in – never mind win – the Derby. Now, recalling his post-Derby glow, his failure to capitalize, he is philosophical.
"I don't regret, I don't regret," he says. "We only live life once. Even if's a little bit extra hard, I really don't regret anything."
The next step in his journey – the work required to rank among the best jockeys around – is in progress.
"This is going to be my new dreams," Gutierrez says. "And I'm going to make them happen."