Jockey Mario Gutierrez

Riding high.

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It is bustling with activity, of a summer morning, 7 a.m., geese milling about on the Hastings Racecourse’s central meadow, the occasional swallow careening around finding breakfast on the wing, and vociferously snorting, panting thoroughbred horses going through their exercise and training regimen along the track. A bucolic sight, with the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and the North Shore mountains as backdrop, the empty grandstand brooding just behind. Among the horses are two brothers, Taylor Said and Taylor’s Deal, the former fresh off a big win at the Longacres Derby in Seattle. Among the riders and jockeys is Mario Gutierrez, who rode Taylor Said to that impressive victory, and who also rode I’ll Have Another to the Santa Anita Derby winner’s circle, and then won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

Around Hasting Racecourse Gutierrez is a bit of a folk hero, a young man who shot to the height of his profession and put Vancouver on the horse racing map. Everyone says hello to him, many stopping to shake his hand or give him a hug. Even the horses seem to understand who he is; they nuzzle and bump him—a gentle hello from creatures that stand nearly twice his height.

Gutierrez grew up on a small farm in Mexico. “The nearest town was many kilometres away. We were pretty much isolated,” he says. His father was training to be a jockey as Gutierrez turned 7 years old, and so “watching my dad learn made me want to learn, too. Before I turned 14, I was getting okay at it. But I had to finish high school.” He pauses and smiles. “I was already making a bit of money, so my parents had to force me to finish school.” The races he rode were all on quarter horses, though. He had to move to Mexico City to find thoroughbreds to ride. “I always wondered if I was good enough to ride with those jockeys in Mexico City. I had to find out,” Gutierrez says. “When I got there, it was a long process. You have to show people you are the right person to ride their horse.” But by the end of 2006, he was indeed showing people, and winning purses.

It was then, at the age of 19, that Gutierrez met trainer Terry Jordan, who invited him to Vancouver to ride under contract. Stable owner Glen Todd took interest; it would become a fortuitous partnership, since Todd had quality horses—among many others over the years, the two Taylor horses—and Gutierrez rode them very well. Todd even took Gutierrez under his wing. “He is my Canadian father, honestly. I lived in his house when I was here. He gave me a lot of good advice, about life, too,” Gutierrez says. During the winter season, the team raced in and around San Francisco, and that was where Gutierrez began to think that the heights of Santa Anita race track were attainable. “I dreamed about it all the time,” he says.

It wasn’t until 2011, though, that he moved to California full time. And he remembers his first few rides at Santa Anita very well. “I was used to riding claims horses, but down there, there were stakes horses, really big time,” he says. There are three grades of stakes horses in the business (I, II, and III). It was like starting all over again for Gutierrez, competing with not only the best horses but the best jockeys on the continent. “It was so competitive. No one gave an inch, and there were lots of times I got nudged and bumped, tested to see if I could take it.” Gutierrez was getting better and better, and even won a race at Santa Anita for Troy Taylor.

“I’ll Have Another is a horse who gives you everything he’s got. When we come around the turn into the final stretch, I get low in the saddle, and I barely have to tap him. He already knows it is time to go hard.”

A Grade II stake horse named I’ll Have Another was riderless in the later stages of 2011, and Canadian owner J. Paul Reddam had heard about the Canadian jockey from Vancouver, and invited him to ride the horse for training purposes. (Reddam had purchased the colt as a one-year old for $35,000. After his racing career was over, he was sold to stud, at $10-million.) “He is a great horse”, says Gutierrez, his voice rising slightly. “I knew from the first time I rode him. After I was done, I tweeted a couple of people here in Vancouver, and told them this is the real deal.” Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neil saw that chemistry, and so Gutierrez was aboard when I’ll Have Another won the 2012 Robert B. Lewis stakes at Santa Anita, despite being a 34-1 underdog. He then won the Santa Anita Derby as well, and qualified for the Kentucky Derby. Gutierrez explains: “Purses are key. Only the top 20 earners are invited to the Derby, so the wins at Santa Anita were vital.”

At the Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another came from behind, and fairly wide, to win by a length and a half. “His style is the exact way I like to race,” says Gutierrez. “I think our chances are better on the outside, in the clear. You don’t get trapped that way.” Plus, there is that key factor: how much horse have you got? “I’ll Have Another is a horse who gives you everything he’s got,” says Gutierrez. “When we come around the turn into the final stretch, I get low in the saddle, and I barely have to tap him. He already knows it is time to go hard.” It is part practice, part instinct, and the rider has to know the horse, even down to its mood and energy level for each race. “If you go 10 seconds too soon, you run out of speed at the end. If you go 10 seconds too late, you just don’t get there in time. So you need to judge when to let the horse go.” The Derby win is almost a carbon copy of the great Secretariat’s Derby win. Not a bad role model.

Watching the Kentucky Derby win, you can see the horse swing his head ever so briefly to the right, and then he is gracefully brought back in. Gutierrez acknowledges that, and explains: “Horses generally like to lead with the right foot on the stretches, and on the left foot during the turns. They would get too tired using the same lead foot the entire race. Usually, all you have to do is remind them to change feet, and with I’ll Have Another, I almost never have to do even that. But in the Derby, he did move right a little on the turn, as he changed legs. So I just made sure he was focussed on the final stretch.”

Thoroughbreds began as a cross between three stallions (two Arab, one Turk) and a variety of mares, in 17th century England. The breed is all about maximum exertion and speed, so there is an extremely high ration of injury and accident with these horses. As Todd puts it, “The criteria in this high-risk business is to have solid paperwork—know who the parents are—and confirmation, which means to have a thorough examination of the horse. Even then, it is rare to find a horse that is put together perfectly. Less than half of thoroughbreds that are purchased and trained for racing purposes actually have even one race.” It is a sobering thought, and explains in part what happened after Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another had won the Preakness, and were getting ready to run the third leg of the Triple Crown at the Belmont. A tendon injury forced the trainer and owner to withdraw the horse from that final race. “When they told me, I was very upset,” Gutierrez muses. “He’s such a competitive horse, and I know he would have loved to run the race.”

As Taylor Said nudges Gutierrez again, likely in search of yet another peppermint candy, most horses are cooling out in their stables, bundles of fresh hay hanging at each door. Gutierrez looks out over the empty track and says, “This is the place I really began, and I love it here.” He will continue to come back for key races, working with Todd, but his future is likely to involve more appearances at the big stakes races south of the border. He knows his horses, and it seems likely he will have another, to ride into glory.

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September 24, 2012

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