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Belmont Stakes 2012: From bullring to Belmont, Gutierrez stays cool
By Jay Hovdey
Mario Gutierrez, a stranger in a strange land, took one look at the unfamiliar racecourse laid out before him and shook his head.
“I can’t do this,” he said.
At five furlongs in circumference, Hastings Park was a shock to Gutierrez, who was just 19 at the time and freshly arrived in Western Canada from his native Mexico.
Even so, he was hardly a novice. He cut his teeth riding Quarter Horses as a kid on straightaways near his rural hometown, then graduated to Thoroughbreds at the full-sized Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City, where he led the apprentice standings.
But this? This postage stamp of a racetrack in the middle of a Canadian forest and flanked by carnival rides? Thoroughbreds were not meant to be ridden at high speeds in such tight circles. And besides, where Gutierrez came from horses did not do well in a bullring. Where he came from they called bullrings the Plaza de Toros, and the horses were ridden by picadors.
“I thought, ‘They don’t really race horses here,’ ” Gutierrez said. “There’s no way. How many times you got to go around this little circle? I called my family and told them I was ready to pack my stuff and go home.
“Now I can laugh at it,” he said, “but at the time I was so scared. I couldn’t speak the language. I thought, ‘My God, what am I supposed to do?’ Somehow, though, I sucked it up and stuck around.”
Let the record show that Gutierrez not only stuck around, but also adapted, improvised, and overcame his early misgivings to embrace the city of Vancouver and thrive at Hastings, where he became the leading jockey in 2007 and 2008. His subsequent transition to Southern California in 2011 eventually led to trainer Doug O’Neill, owner Paul Reddam, and their colt I’ll Have Another for solid wins in the 2012 Robert Lewis Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby. And now, after victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Gutierrez and the colt are on the brink of winning the Triple Crown on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.
If anything beats them, goes the conventional wisdom, it will be the Belmont Park main track itself, a mile and one-half anachronism into which two Hastings Parks can be comfortably threaded with room left over for a 400-yard quarter horse dash. Some noteworthy jockeys – among them the three-time Derby winners Kent Desormeaux and Calvin Borel – have come away from Belmont rides shaking their heads, wondering what went wrong.
“They’re right,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t have experience at Belmont Park. And I respect those opinions, but I don’t listen to them. I listen to the people who are close to me – people who believed in me when I was nothing and nobody.
“Anyway, everybody else had to do something for the first time,” he said. “But you don’t have to do it wrong. It’s still a racetrack. It’s dirt. We still have to turn left and go in a circle.”
Laffit Pincay smiles when he hears Gutierrez say such things. In a career of 9,530 wins, Pincay won the Belmont Stakes three times, plus a couple of Jockey Club Gold Cups at Belmont’s full 1 1/2 miles around. One of his Gold Cups was aboard Affirmed, the last winner of the Triple Crown.
“I think his horse might win,” Pincay said of I’ll Have Another. “And I hope he wins, but if he does it won’t be easy. There are a couple of horses in there who will be tough. Union Rags, if he’s ready, is going to run a good race, because I don’t think he got to run his race in the Derby. And Dullahan was finishing faster than anybody in the Derby.”
If I’ll Have Another is beaten Saturday, Pincay said he does not think it will be due to pilot error. What he’s seen of Gutierrez he likes very much, and he particularly admires the patience shown by the young rider under tremendous pressure.
“He rode a great race in the Preakness, and I think he’s going to do a good job in the Belmont,” Pincay said. “He’s very cool. That’s the main thing about him – he’s a cool kid. That’s something he’s got inside him, because some riders are cooler than others. Shoemaker was very cool. Baeza was very cool. Pat Day was very cool. Just a different type of rider.”
By the time Pincay was 25, the same age as Gutierrez, he was already a three-time national champion fresh from a 1971 season during which he led the standings in both purse money and wins and rode the beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby. No question Pincay was cool, right?
“No,” he said, and laughed. “But I could be when I needed to.”
Like Pincay, who is from Panama, Gutierrez has made his way from a difficult corner of the Latin American world. He was born to Mario and Paulina Gutierrez on Sept. 19, 1986, in El Higo (“the fig”), a farming town of barely 7,000 on the Rio Tempoal in the eastern Mexican state of Veracruz.
“Without the sugar cane, there wouldn’t be much work for the people around there,” Gutierrez said one afternoon not long ago at Betfair Hollywood Park, as he relaxed during a long break between mounts.
“My dad worked on a farm, taking care of the animals for the owner, Juan Lara,” Gutierrez said. “He and his wife, Patricia, came up for the Preakness. Before the race she gave me this.”
Reaching down the neck of his t-shirt, Gutierrez fished out a gold and platinum cross hanging from a silver chain. It was Juan Lara who put the elder Mario Gutierrez in the saddle aboard the farm’s quarter horses for local match races. Little did they know at the time they were lighting a fire.
“My dad says I was a pain in the ass, always asking him, ‘Can I ride? Can I ride?’ ” Gutierrez said. “But I was so little. He let me take care of the horses, but I wanted to be on top of them.”
By the time Gutierrez turned 13, he was breaking Quarter Horses from the gate.
“I started bugging my dad to let me ride a match race where there was money involved so I could make some,” he said. “But I was still so small, he held me back.”
Then one day a horse flipped and landed hard on the young Gutierrez. He’d already broken his arm a few times, but this was different.
“I didn’t break anything,” Gutierrez said, still amazed, “but I couldn’t walk very good for a couple of months. When you’re young, though, I guess you heal fast. As soon as I could, I was back on horses.”
From then on, there was only one thing that could keep the kid off those horses.
“My grades,” Gutierrez said. “When I flunked four classes, my parents said no riding for six months. I took that very serious.”
Armed with a high school diploma and the reluctant blessing of his mother, Gutierrez was 17 when he went off to Mexico City to commence a career as an apprentice jockey. He was noticed there by vacationing Hastings Park trainer Terry Jordan – sort of like Rita Hayworth being “discovered” at a Hollywood lunch counter – and accepted Jordan’s invitation to try Canada. Gutierrez figured, why not?
Then he got that first look at the track and his first taste of bullring competition.
“I couldn’t communicate with anyone,” Gutierrez said. “They didn’t tell me I should stay a little bit off the rail, especially when the horse switches his lead, because on a small track like that the horses are used to getting to the inside. In my first race I think I bumped the rail about three times, and I still won.”
Gary Stevens won the first hundred-grander of his Hall of Fame jockey career at Hastings Park in 1983. He was 20.
“The British Columbia Derby,” Stevens said. “It was called Exhibition Park back then. I used to go up there on dark days at Longacres, and it really taught you how to ride. It was a little bit Western, if you know what I mean. You learn to protect yourself and learn how to see a bad thing about to happen way before it does.”
Stevens says the Hastings Park background has played a role in the trips Gutierrez fashioned aboard I’ll Have Another in a 20-horse Derby field and then in a Preakness when he was in everyone’s sights.
“It’s easy to screw somebody on a bullring like Hastings,” Stevens said. “And you can bet everybody was trying to screw Mario, with him riding most of the best horses. He learned how to extricate himself from those spots. His ability to see what’s going on is way beyond his years.”
More than most, Stevens appreciates what Gutierrez has been going through since I’ll Have Another won the Preakness. His wife, Angie Athayde-Stevens, is with a personal management firm that took on the job of handling Mario’s avalanche of media requests. Stevens himself, who made his bones in the Northwest before hitting the big time, will be on camera as analyst for the NBC telecast of the Belmont. And if that’s not enough, Stevens has had to suffer through constant reminders in recent weeks of his failed attempt to win the Belmont Stakes aboard Silver Charm in 1997, when they missed a Triple Crown by three-quarters of a length.
“If he can just keep people from getting in his head he’ll be all right,” Stevens said. “But that’s easier said than done.”
Gutierrez led the Hastings standings for two years, then signed a contract to ride for owner Glenn Todd and trainer Troy Taylor. He now had a measure of security to go along with his success, but like all young athletes, success had a price.
“When I was a little kid it was tough,” Gutierrez said. “But when you’re a kid, what you have is what you have. You don’t think about what you don’t have. My dad was the only one who could make any money to support the whole family, and that wasn’t a lot.”
Still feeling isolated by language and culture in Vancouver, Gutierrez also was making money in amounts he’d never imagined.
“It was hard,” Gutierrez said. “All of a sudden you have friends, and you don’t want to be alone. It sucks to be alone. If you have friends you feel happy, and because you’re making money you’re paying for everything. And because you pay for everything, you attract more people. Girls, drinks, parties – and because you’re away from home, even if you do wrong there’s nobody to tell you, because you’ve got money.”
Gutierrez gives his patron, Glenn Todd, credit for steering him straight.
“Working papers, taxes, just talking about life – everything like that my partner helped me with,” Gutierrez said. “I call Glenn Todd my partner, but he is more like a second father to me. And by this I mean no disrespect to my father at all.”
It was Todd and Taylor who brought Gutierrez to California for winter racing in 2011, and it was through their friend Mike Puhich that the young rider met Ivan Puhich, Mike’s uncle and a veteran agent. Ivan Puhich is the one who made sure Gutierrez made it to Hollywood Park one morning last January to work I’ll Have Another for Doug O’Neill.
“It just shows how all you need is someone to believe in you,” Gutierrez said. “Someone just to give you that chance.”
As strange as Hastings might have looked to Gutierrez, Belmont presents its own bizarre perspective, according to Gary Stevens.
“It’s a vast ocean where you can’t see land nor islands,” Stevens said. “One of the first races I rode there was a mile race where I thought I set realistic fractions, going what I thought was a quarter in maybe 25 and a half in 49. I proceeded to get my butt kicked. When I came back and looked at the tote board I saw 22-and-three, 45-and-one. I was about three seconds off on everything.”
He got better, winning three runnings of the Belmont Stakes.
“Belmont went from being a track I was afraid of to my favorite track to ride on,” Stevens said. “If you were on the best horse, you won because there were very few excuses.”
But can Gutierrez figure all that out in the few days he planned to ride at Belmont before the big day?
“I think he can,” Stevens said. “He’s gone from a seven-eighths track in Mexico to five-eighths at Hastings, to a mile at Golden Gate and Santa Anita, to nine furlongs at Hollywood Park, not to mention Churchill Downs and Pimlico. It’s pretty astonishing.
“It’s like fly-fishing,” Stevens said. “If you know what you’re doing it doesn’t matter what stream you go to. You’re going to figure out where the fish are pretty quick. That’s what I see in this kid. He’s still a diamond in the rough, but horses just plain run for him.”
And there is no jockey, Stevens insisted, who will not be living vicariously through Gutierrez on Saturday when he tries to make history.
“I’ve never gotten over the devastation of not winning the Triple Crown with Silver Charm,” Stevens said. “It’s like you’ve let America down. And with Mario, he’s got Canada, Mexico, and the United States riding on his shoulders.”
Gutierrez has no shortage of confidence in I’ll Have Another, which may be the key to how they fare in the Belmont.
“I know how huge this is,” he said. “Nobody needs to tell me. And nobody else in the race is running for the Triple Crown but me. Regardless of what comes that day I’m going to be the only one people are watching. And that’s what I want to be prepared for. Whatever happens in the race, I want to know I’ve done everything I can to do my job.
“But regardless of what happens, win or lose, I still have to come back to work, even after everybody else is gone,” Gutierrez said. “I’m trying to enjoy it a lot because I know it’s once in a lifetime. I’ll get emotional if I really think about it.”
He paused, because he was thinking about it, and he preferred not to let his emotions slip, at least not yet, like they did when the enormity of his Kentucky Derby victory washed over him at Churchill Downs.
“I had a dream,” Gutierrez said. “When I knew I wanted to be a jockey I would dream of maybe someday riding in the Kentucky Derby. Not winning it, just riding in it. Realistically, I knew I was never gonna get there. So now, no matter what happens, nobody is taking away the Kentucky Derby from me, or the Preakness away from me. I got them. They’re going to stay with me no matter what.
“I got friends back home in El Higo who one day will have a kid, and that kid will have a wonderful dream,” he said. “They can say, ‘You know, it’s good you got a dream like that. Once there was a guy who lived here – a regular guy, ran around without any shoes – and he became something.’
“If it happens to me,” Gutierrez said, “I don’t see why it won’t happen to anybody else.”
Can't wait for more of The gary Stevens show, so he can tell us all about how great he was.
GO IHA !
GO MARIO lets HAVE ANOTHER!
Not sure if I was from Hastings I'd be rooting for this kid.
Old enough to remember Steve Cauthen and his run to true stardom via the Triple Crown. While he was a bigger name than Mario before he won, he too was questioned and scrutinized. Just saying. Suspect Mario will fail, but doubt it will be his fault. The entire IHA team should be happy to have avoided Mark Valeski, but they still have to face a few tough horses who are more rested or at least less stressed. If IHA wins, he will have earned it. But, Paynter, Dullahan or even Street Life or Union Rags could finish in front of IHA. Will have IHA covered on top and within exotics, but will also have some without him altogether. I really like Paynter though I acknowledge that his recent freak-outs may make him a bounce candidate or he could just be dead short. Consider this. Baffert thinks he had the best horse in both previous Triple Crown races this year (in the long run, he might be right). Baffert has been foiled twice with the Triple Crown on the line. Paynter is Baffert's chance to somewhat avenge those losses. Plus, don't discount Baffert having planned for Paynter to be here. The horse simply wasn't ready for prime time in Arkansas, but Baffert may have him ready for a big run now. Lastly, O'Neill is a California regular, just like Bobby B., and there IS animosity between all the regulars in California and Baffert is also known to be ultra-competitive. I suspect Baffert wants this bad and has the best bullet he has left primed and ready for this. Just saying.
I like what Pincay says about Gutierrez (not due to pilot error). He likes what he's seen. And, i'm relieved. That being said, if what he said is true, we'll have our 12th Triple Crown winner, no doubt about it. As far as that statement about Dullahan was finishing faster than anybody in the Derby, I still say that honor went to Went The Day Well (who, for some ungodly reason, faded in the Preakness). Anyway, i'm just sooooo looking forward to saturday. Best wishes to IHA. :)
jay, excellent piece of writing.
I am so fond of Mario Gutierrez. His story is inspiring. His bond with I'll Have Another is touching. Mario's poise and attitude has been admirable. Mario is totally likable and it's easy to root for him to succeed. Good luck to you, Mario, and to I'll Have Another in the Belmont Stakes!
Mario is so easy to root for and one of the good guys in sports. His journey is one of the best stories I've ever heard, complete with a total cast of characters. Gosh, I hope he wins. Sometimes nice guys do finish first.
"..after I win it [Belmont Stakes]..." I love it!!! Go Mario!
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