05/05/2012 8:46PM

2012 Kentucky Derby: Gutierrez doesn't let inexperience stop him from guiding I'll Have Another to victory

Tom Keyser
Mario Gutierrez, left, and trainer Doug O'Neill celebrate with the trophy after winning the Kentucky Derby with I'll Have Another.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Jockey Mario Gutierrez has ridden races for nearly half his life but until this week had never been to Churchill Downs or attended a Kentucky Derby - until Saturday, when he had the best seat in the house for the world’s greatest race, atop the winner I'll Have Another.

Gutierrez, 25, began his career riding Quarter Horse match races at the age of 14 in his native Veracruz, Mexico. He first came to the United States in 2005, settling in on a regular basis a year later at Hastings in British Columbia, Canada, where he’s won two riding titles. He moved his tack to Southern California at the end of the 2011 meet, first catching the attention of I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug O’Neill, earlier this winter at Santa Anita.

“We were talking one afternoon about who to get to ride I’ll Have Another when we brought him back this year," said O'Neill. "We knew we weren’t going to get Bejarano or Rosario. While we were having the discussion, we watched Mario win a race at Santa Anita and were impressed. I couldn’t have picked Mario out of a lineup at the time but I talked to his agent, he came over and worked the horse, worked him beautifully, and we decided to give him a chance.”

Teaming Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another proved to be a wise decision by O’Neill. The pair combined to capture the Grade 2 Robert Lewis by  2 3/4 lengths and the Santa Anita Derby by a nose over the odds-on Creative Cause in the colt’s only two Derby preps.

Despite Gutierrez’s relative inexperience on the big stage, and the fact he was forced to break from post 19, he became the 42nd rider in Derby history to win the race in his first attempt, orchestrating a perfect trip aboard I’ll Have Another.

“Like all jockeys, you always dream about winning the Kentucky Derby, but when you’re riding at a small track like Hastings, you never really believe it can happen,” said Gutierrez. “We had a good trip. I knew he was a good horse and was going to give me 100 percent. I loved the way he was stretching out when I asked him at the top of the stretch, although I really didn’t know if I could win until I reached the wire. This is so amazing. I have no words to describe the feeling. Everybody did such a great job, Doug and everybody else connected with this horse. I’m so excited. This is unbelievable.”

Gutierrez has not only become an instant success in Southern California, he has also quickly endeared himself to his fellow riders there.

“He’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” said Mike Smith, who rode runner-up Bodemeister in the Derby. “He’s got a brilliant personality and he’s come a long way in a short time. He’s got an extreme amount of talent and you haven’t seen the best of him yet. If I had to get beat, I’m glad it was by a good guy like him.”
Gutierrez surely has come a long way in a short time, from the jockeys' room at Hastings all the way to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.