06/01/2009 11:00PM

Gutierrez good overall, but great in stakes


AUBURN, Wash. - While Ricky Frazier takes aim at the Emerald Downs record book, fellow jockey Juan Gutierrez is flying a little under the radar. But quietly, as is his nature, Gutierrez is having an outstanding season.

Frazier has 46 victories in 23 days. At his current pace, he would finish the 91-day meeting with 182 wins, shattering the mark of 157 he established in 2007. But while Frazier was a winner's circle regular last week, Gutierrez capped the week with a three-bagger Sunday and took down the biggest prize when he rode Noosa Beach to a front-running victory in the $50,000 Pepsi-Cola Handicap. It was Gutierrez's 25th stakes victory in nine-plus seasons at Emerald Downs.

If Frazier is the top dog around Emerald, Gutierrez, 39, is a handicapper's best friend. His average win payoff through the first five weeks of the meeting was $11.60, nearly $4 more than Frazier's. Last summer, Gutierrez won nine times with horses that paid $22 or more. This season, he's winning at a 20-percent clip, with longshots and favorites, front-runners and closers, good horses and cheap ones.

"I feel comfortable right now," said Gutierrez, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, after driving Noosa Beach to a head victory over stablemate Winning Machine, a ride that required quick thinking at the start and equal measures of finesse and strength en route to the finish line.

Trainer Doris Harwood's pre-race instructions left room for interpretation: Take back if the pace is quick, or make the running if the pace is slow. Needing only a few seconds to recognize a tepid pace - 22.40 for the first quarter - Gutierrez eased Noosa Beach to the front and coaxed him to the top of the stretch. After Winning Machine ranged up at the three-sixteenths pole, Gutierrez and his horse went into overdrive.

"Juan's a strong rider, and this is a big, strong horse," Harwood said when listing Gutierrez's strengths. "He can use his stick appropriately, he can hit them left- or right-handed, and he thinks about what the other riders are doing. He's able to make decisions in the body of the race as needed."

With 28 wins, Gutierrez is tied with Gallyn Mitchell for second place in the standings. He has never won an Emerald riding title and probably won't this summer. But he does lead Frazier 2-1 in one all-important statistic - victories in the Longacres Mile. Gutierrez rode No Giveaway to a $122 stunner in 2005 and scored a popular victory with The Great Face in 2007.

"Every rider dreams about winning the Mile. I'm really pleased and very fortunate," Gutierrez said. "It would be nice to be leading rider, but it's more important just to do the best you can every day, every race. There are some good riders here. It's competitive, this meeting."

Wenzel ready to get rolling

Trainer Tom Wenzel enjoyed a dream summer in 2007, winning $100,000 races on consecutive days with Rivoltella in the Washington Oaks and The Great Face in the Longacres Mile. Those were heady times for the Tacoma native; in addition to taking down two of the Northwest's richest races, he posted a track-best winning percentage of 24.

Business wasn't too bad in 2008, either; Wenzel won with 18 percent of his 125 starters. But things are a little less fruitful so far at the current meeting. He has won with just 2 of his first 27 starters. More distressing, stable star The Great Face made just one start, a third-place finish in an allowance race on opening night, before heading into retirement with a tendon injury. The consistent 5-year-old Fathoms Revenge sustained a soft-tissue injury in his second start and was retired. Talented 3-year-old Zagreus was laid up for a while. Carrie Cat, one of the top horses in the barn until she sustained a saucer fracture in the Gottstein Futurity last summer, could return this year - but not for Wenzel. She will be sent to trainer Doug O'Neill in Southern California.

"I don't know if I have a stakes horse in the barn right now, to tell you the truth," Wenzel, 43, said last week. "It could be a little lean around here this year."

That doesn't mean Wenzel is cursing the heavens. He has about a dozen 2-year-olds in the barn, including several promising fillies - Sassy Lil Senorita is entered in the fourth race Thursday - and he long ago learned to take the good with the bad.

"You do what you can do, and you can't let this business get to you," he said. "A lot of things are out of your control."