04/20/2012 11:24AM

Hastings notes: Perez filling hole left by Gutierrez


VANCOUVER, British Columbia – After the first weekend of racing at Hastings, Fernando Perez held a one-win lead over Richard Hamel in the jockey standings. It is a bit early to make predictions, but it is very likely that Perez will battle it out with Hamel for leading rider this year, thanks in large part to his alliance with the powerful team of owner Glen Todd and trainer Troy Taylor.

Perez, who rode at Northlands Park last year, took over from Mario Gutierrez as the first-call rider for Todd and Taylor. Taylor is gunning for his sixth straight training title and Todd provides him with considerable ammunition. Gutierrez was the leading rider at Hastings in 2007 and 2008. Last year he finished second behind Hamel by just three wins.

Gutierrez is trying to establish himself on the tough Southern California circuit, and he will try to win in the Kentucky Derby aboard Santa Anita Derby winner I’ll Have Another.

With Gutierrez gone, Perez saw an opportunity and took it.

“I went to Glen and asked if I could take Mario’s place,” said Perez. “I had a good relationship with him and Troy in 2010 and I know how big of a factor they are at Hastings.”

Todd didn’t take long accepting the offer.

“It took me about four minutes to say yes,” said Todd. “He was our go-to guy behind Mario in 2010, and he won a lot of races for us. Mario always seemed to be choosing the wrong 2-year-old when we ran two horses in a stakes races, and Fernando ended up winning a few stakes for us. “

Perez, 26, was well on his way to winning the jockey title in 2010 when he was forced to miss the last couple of months of the meet due to a heart condition.

“People thought it was a heart attack but it was a blood clot that occurred when I banged into the starting gate,” said Perez. “I am perfect now. I certainly monitor it, but the only thing I’ve changed to stay healthy is that I quit smoking.”

Last year Perez was the main rider for trainer Greg Tracy at Northlands Park and he had a solid year, finishing second in the standings behind Rico Walcott.

“I enjoyed riding in Edmonton but I did miss Vancouver a bit,” said Perez. “When Mario told me he was going to ride in California this year I was hoping I could take his place. You just can’t ride for better people than Troy and Glen. Plus, there are some pretty nice horses coming out of their barn.”

Perez rode one of the nice horse, Taylor’s Deal, to an impressive win in a six-furlong allowance race last Saturday.

“He did that pretty easily,” said Perez.

Taylor’s Deal was coming off a win going 1 1/16 miles in the $75,000 Turf Paradise Derby.

Perez might take Gutierrez’s place as the main rider for Todd, but he won’t take over as the “adopted son.” Todd and Gutierrez have a bond that goes well beyond horse racing. Todd is Gutierrez’s biggest supporter and nobody will be cheering harder for him on May 5.

“Before he got the mount on I’ll Have Another, Mario actually wanted to come back to Hastings and ride this year,” said Todd. “He really misses Troy. I told him no. I knew he was good enough to make it there and he just needed to gain more confidence. He’s getting that now. We still talk about three times a day. I’ll be the happiest guy on the planet if he wins the Derby.”

Another Northlands rider doing well

Northlands Park could be short two jockeys if Ruben Lara can make an impact at Hastings. He’s off to a good start with a win plus a couple of seconds and a third from seven mounts. Lara’s win came aboard Lots of Cash, a 4-year-old filly who was making her debut for for trainer Nancy Betts.

Lara, 37, is a native of Mexico and he rode mostly in Mexico City before heading to Northlands in 2010. He won 45 races his first year in Edmonton and 39 last year. He also won five stakes from 32 mounts.

One of the things that makes Hastings attractive to Lara is the quality of the horses.

“I really appreciated the opportunity of coming to Canada and riding at Northlands,” he said. “The horses are a little better here and it would be nice to ride here. I am going to give it my best shot and see how it goes.”

Betts is planning on using Lara quite a bit.

“I was impressed with the ride he gave on my filly,” she said. “He’s gritty, tries hard, and is reliable. He’ll ride most of the horses in my barn.”