05/10/2012 1:34PM

2012 Preakness: A hero's welcome awaits Gutierrez at Hastings this Sunday

Justin N. Lane
Mario Gutierrez's Kentucky Derby win aboard I'll Have Another meant a lot to the horsemen at Hastings, his former track.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Kentucky Derby winning jockey Mario Gutierrez has taken a day off from riding at Betfair Hollywood Park to make an appearance at Hastings on Sunday. A press conference has been scheduled for noon and Gutierrez will meet with fans on the tarmac in front of the winner’s circle at 1 p.m.

Gutierrez rode at Hastings from 2006 through 2011 before switching to the Southern California circuit. He was the leading rider at Hastings in 2007 and 2008 and led all riders at Hastings in money-won last year with mount earnings of $1.4 million – the same as I’ll Have Another earned in the Derby.

Gutierrez said part of the reason for his visit is that he has been overwhelmed by the media’s response to his Derby win and that he wants to be fresh when he rides I’ll Have Another in the Preakness. He also wants to show his thanks to everyone who has supported him in Vancouver.

“I am still a bit surprised by the reaction to my win,” an emotional Gutierrez said. “I want to come to Vancouver to clear my head so I can focus on the Preakness. More than anything I’m a bit homesick.”

Gutierrez, 25, plans to stay in Vancouver until Wednesday and then will fly straight to Baltimore to prepare for the Preakness.

When I’ll Have Another won the Derby at Churchill Downs, it was one of those you-had-to-be-there-moments at Hastings. The roar of the crowd was deafening when I’ll Have Another overtook Bodemeister. It had little to do with I’ll Have Another. It was all about Gutierrez.

For casual fans the Derby was comparable to watching someone go from playing for the single A Vancouver Canadians baseball team in July to hitting the winning home run in the seventh game of the World Series in October. But for the people who grind out a living racing at Hastings, Gutierrez’s Derby win was something more profound.

When Gutierrez gave a textbook-perfect ride aboard I’ll Have Another, it went a long way toward validating their own hard work and horsemanship. Gutierrez’s improbable win actually brought seasoned horsemen to tears.

Trainer John Snow and his wife Tammy were among the many overcome by the emotion of the moment. Snow grew up at Hastings. His father, Mel Snow, is a trainer and a past president of the local Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. Tammy Snow is a former jockey.

Gutierrez’s first win in North America came aboard Cherokee Freedom, a horse trained by John Snow.

“It is unheard of what he did,” said Snow. “It is the hardest race in the world to win and he rode the horse magnificently. It was one for the little guys.”

“It just shows how good the riders are here,” said Tammy Snow. “Mario is great, but so are some of the other jockeys that ride at Hastings. What he did gave everyone hope that big things are possible.”

HBPA secretary treasurer Richard Yates, a local breeder and trainer, grew up in North Carolina and has attended many big races in the United States, including Majestic Prince’s victory over Arts and Letters in the 1969 Kentucky Derby. Yates was stunned by the reaction to the Derby at Hastings last Saturday.

“I have never witnessed that kind of response at a track in my life,” said Yates. “Everyone left here happy. It showed that this is someplace that counts. We have excellent horsemen here and Mario’s brilliant ride demonstrated that. A rider came through here that was good enough to win the Kentucky Derby. It brightened up our corner of the world and helped make us feel better about who we are. In a lot of ways we were riding with him.”

Glen Todd, the leading owner at Hastings, and trainer Troy Taylor, have had a lot to do with Gutierrez’s success. They were the ones who brought Gutierrez to Southern California to ride last winter. When Gutierrez arrived at Hastings in 2006, Todd took him under his wing and became a second father to him. According to Todd, Gutierrez could have gone in the wrong direction.

“He was immediately successful and he was just a kid, and we all know where that can lead,” said Todd. “I told him he had the talent to do something special and if he worked hard there was no telling how far he could go.”

Todd doesn’t often get emotional but when Gutierrez called him late Saturday night he broke down.

“He had been through about 300 interviews and was pretty tired,” said Todd. “He told me not to say a thing and just listen. Then he told me he couldn’t have done it without me. That did it.”

When Gutierrez made the walk from the jockeys’ quarters to the paddock on Saturday he had a big smile on his face and looked completely composed, ready for the biggest race of his life.

“I always listen to Glen when he gives me serious advice,” said Gutierrez. “He told me to put in the work, be prepared, and then go out and enjoy the moment. Without Glen and Troy’s support, and really all the people in Vancouver, this wouldn’t have happened.”