12/13/2012 12:52PM

Gutierrez back for another Kentucky Derby run

Barbara D. Livingston
Mario Gutierrez, who guided I'll Have Another to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, rides He's Had Enough in Saturday's CashCall Futurity.

There was something surreal about the sight of the Kentucky Derby-winning jockey wandering through the crowd at Hoosier Park on an October afternoon, all dressed up with no horse to ride. But there he was, Mario Gutierrez, grounded by Hoosier’s stewards for being late to the dance – the dance in this case being the $500,000 Indiana Derby – and forced to watch alongside the paying customers as his mount, Paul Reddam’s Second City, finished 10th of 11 under someone else.

“Two minutes,” Gutierrez said. “That’s what we were late. I was still in my silks and boots and carrying my saddle.”

Let the record show the official tardy slip read “five minutes,” which still wasn’t bad, considering that Gutierrez had just come from Keeneland, where he rode He’s Had Enough for Reddam in the Breeders’ Futurity. They were done with that race at five o’clock. Post time for the Indiana Derby was 6:15. It is 159 miles from Lexington, Ky., to Anderson, Ind. – pretty much a take off and a landing for Reddam’s private jet – but there was a brief delay at the start and not enough wiggle room on the other end.

“I didn’t get to see much in Indiana,” Gutierrez said. “There were people who still recognized me, though, and I signed a few autographs. But it was very frustrating.”

Understood. Still, the fallout from the Hoosier hassle could not be viewed as more than a drop in the emotional bucket compared to the collection of highs, lows, and lifetime firsts experienced in 2012 by the relatively unsung rider from El Higo, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Buckle up:

* February: Gutierrez, a former Hastings Park champion who is getting no respect in Southern California, wins his first graded stakes event in his first collaboration with I’ll Have Another in the Robert B. Lewis Memorial at Santa Anita Park at odds of 43-1.

* April: Reddam, besieged by rival agents, sticks with Gutierrez and is rewarded when I’ll Have Another proves best the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

* May: I’ll Have Another and Gutierrez become national figures by winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The media descends on fresh meat.

* June: Gutierrez is crushed as I’ll Have Another is scratched from the Belmont Stakes and a chance to make history as the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

* July: Gutierrez wins ESPN’s ESPY Award for best jockey, taking the stage in L.A. along with LeBron James, Tim Tebow, Maria Sharapova, and Jeremy Lin. It is an honor but hardly a surprise, since 10 of the last 11 ESPY-winning jockeys have also won the Derby.

* August: Gutierrez wins the historic Longacres Mile aboard Taylor Said at Emerald Downs for his Canadian patron and mentor Glen Todd.

* September: Gutierrez rides four claimers and an allowance race at Hastings while watching Handsome Mike win the million-dollar Pennsylvania Derby for Reddam at odds of 19-1.

* October: Gutierrez takes an Indiana hay ride (see above).

* November: In his first experience with Breeders’ Cup pressure, Gutierrez has four rides and finishes a close second to Shanghai Bobby in the Juvenile aboard the 19-1 He’s Had Enough.

Dizzy yet? Well, there could be more. On Saturday, Dec. 15, Gutierrez and He’s Had Enough will team again as they try to win the $750,000 CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park. As a bookend to the Robert Lewis, a victory would fit neatly in the story since He’s Had Enough, as noted, is owned by Paul Reddam, the Futurity is sponsored by Reddam’s company, and Gutierrez wears the CashCall logo on his pants.

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Even if they come up short, the mere chance that Gutierrez, 25, could be back in the thick of the conversation for the 2013 classics with another Reddam runner defies all logic. A year ago Gutierrez was practically invisible, knocking on backstretch doors and beseeching agents to give him a hand.

“Around this time was when I met Ivan,” Gutierrez said, referring to the legendary Ivan Puhich, who at 85 considered himself retired at the time. “He was the only one who wanted to take my book. I was just a jockey coming from nowhere. After I won the Kentucky Derby, it seemed like everybody wanted me, but there was no way I was going to turn my back on Ivan.”

Gutierrez eventually did change agents – welcome to the big time – and is now represented by veteran Craig O’Bryan. They’ve done well enough at the current Hollywood Park meet to hold a place near the bottom of the top 10.

At that particular moment, Gutierrez had his feet up on a couch in the jocks’ room lounge at Hollywood. He had just won the day’s fifth race, a 5 1/2-furlong event for $8,000 claimers with a 5-year-old gelding named Fire in the Wind at odds of 29-1. The winning purse was $9,600, exactly $1,450,000 less than what I’ll Have Another took down for winning the Kentucky Derby with Gutierrez on the first Saturday in May.

But this was the first Saturday in December and a long way from Churchill Downs. For Gutierrez, these days a win is a win, especially in Southern California. It is the upcoming Santa Anita meet that Gutierrez is excited about.

“I won’t be traveling around like I was this year,” he said. “People will know I am committed to Santa Anita and California racing and be here one hundred percent.”

If Gutierrez accomplished anything during his remarkable 2012 season it was to reinvigorate the idea that horse racing is a game of ridiculous hopes and dreams that sometimes find a way of becoming true. The Gutierrez story is no different from that of the training camp walk-on who claws his way into the starting backfield, the Class A ballplayer called up in September who goes 7 for 12 in the Series, or the club pro who takes Ernie Els all the way to the last hole in the last round of the PGA.

“The experience absolutely changed me,” Gutierrez said. “I appreciate so much more the work I do. I try to be more professional. It doesn’t matter what kind of race I’m riding, a cheap race or a stakes race, trainers and owners deserve for us to give a hundred percent. Every win is a win, especially for a guy like me who’s trying to build my business here.

“I understand more about the media, too, and the expectations of the public, and why they cheer for us,” he said. “So every single race counts. There’s not a lot of jockeys who come out of Hastings who get to ride here, what I call the big leagues, with top owners and trainers and unbelievable jockeys. To ride with these guys you’ve got to be as good as them.”

The media attention alone between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes could have been enough to send the strongest young athlete running home to Veracruz.

“My schedule that week was wake up at 7, do interviews until 4 o’clock, and wherever I went, there was cameras,” Gutierrez said. “I wasn’t doing any racing – just media stuff, with everybody building the expectations so high. Then all of a sudden it was gone, like somebody took everything away and just left you hanging there. I was very sad.”

And since there was no place for Gutierrez to hide on the day he was supposed to ride the Belmont Stakes, he didn’t even try.

“I watched the race in the grandstand with my best friend from Canada,” he said. “I was picturing myself in the race every step of the way. I wasn’t going to be in a fight with anybody, just let him run his own race. I probably would have taken the lead somewhere around the furlong and a half. Even now, I have no doubt he would have just blown them away that day. He was that kind of horse.

“It happens a lot, though,” he added. “Horses get hurt, get scratched every single day. It was the magnitude of the race that made it different. But at the end of the day, the horse didn’t lose. I didn’t make a mistake.”

And life went on. Gutierrez is the first jockey in the history of the sport to win the Kentucky Derby and the Longacres Mile in the same year. This would not be significant if the Mile had not been won at one time or another by Bill Hartack, Eddie Arcaro, John Longden, Laffit Pincay, Johnny Sellers, Gary Stevens, and Bill Shoemaker. All those guys did was collectively win the Derby 20 times. More to the point, the Longacres Mile is anything but an obscure event at a Northwestern outpost, and winning it for Todd was especially sweet.

“Glen built me a trophy case at his farm,” Gutierrez said. “I put in it my Derby saddle, my trophy, the Derby ring. The ring is massive – I would never wear it.”

Then, too, there are his Preakness souvenirs. He raised a dark eyebrow.

“From the Preakness I got absolutely nothing,” he said, then smiled, “except the paycheck.”

Through the first weekend of December, Gutierrez ranked 40th on the North American money list for 2012 with just more than $5.1 million earned by his 383 mounts. Of that total, I’ll Have Another accounted for just more than half, while the Canadian runner Commander knocked off four stakes with Gutierrez at Northlands Park in Edmondton during the summer.

The young jockey cringes when he thinks of all the clerical work his particular career path has created. Fortunately, he rides for patrons like Todd and Reddam who have people to assist with such details. As a Mexican citizen, Gutierrez requires working visas for both Canada, where he has established residence, and the United States, where he hopes to ride on a more permanent basis. There are income-tax filings in both countries, as well the juggling of a travel schedule in 2012 that crisscrossed North America more times than he can begin to count, although his work status precludes visits home to Mexico.

“With my earnings of the first couple of years I rode in Canada I built my mother a house,” he said. “A big house. Since day one, when I started doing good, I’ve supported my family. As long as I know they’re okay, I’m happy, even if I’m not able to be with them. I know they don’t have to struggle, and that’s a pretty good feeling.”

I’ll Have Another was retired without running again and sold to stud in Japan, which meant Gutierrez had to turn the page once and for all. His experience with He’s Had Enough in the Breeders’ Futurity suggested lightning could strike again.

“When I rode him at Keeneland, I got into a lot of trouble,” Gutierrez said. “Horses were bumping him on all sides. He finally got clear and only got beat about four lengths. I told Mr. Reddam they should give him another chance, and that I thought he was good enough to run in the Breeders’ Cup.”

He’s Had Enough broke from post 13 at Keeneland and finished about the most deceiving 11th anyone could imagine. Officially, he finished four lengths, two necks, a head, and two noses behind victorious Joha. Four weeks later in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Gutierrez and his colt challenged the unbeaten Shanghai Bobby from the eighth pole to the wire before losing by a head.

“His style is different from I’ll Have Another,” Gutierrez said of He’s Had Enough. “He doesn’t have that much speed coming out of the gate. But he’s still learning, and he keeps coming. A horse like that, the longer they go the better. So touch wood he keeps sound. That’s the main thing.”

With only those four races aboard I’ll Have Another, each one thrusting him more intensely into the eye of the sports public, Gutierrez can be forgiven if he sometimes wonders if it happened at all.

“I know the Derby was just last May, and when you count the days it’s not all that many,” he said. “But to me it seems like a long time ago.

“Just yesterday I got a message on Facebook, a video of him in Japan,” Gutierrez said. “He’s massive now. There’s a little bit of snow covering the grass in his pasture, and he’s running through the hills like a wild horse. He seems so happy, and he totally deserves it because he made so many things possible. And I don’t think that tendon is bothering him at all.”