04/11/2012 1:34PM

Hovdey: Kentucky Derby rookies have no fixed course

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Jockey Mario Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another come back winners of the Santa Anita Derby.

It is no big deal to win the Kentucky Derby with your first mount. Check that – it’s a very big deal. It just won’t get you a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Of the 137 Kentucky Derbies run since 1875, there have been 41 of them won by a jockey riding the race for the first time. This of course includes Oliver Lewis, who rode Aristides in 1875 when all 15 jockeys were riding a Kentucky Derby for the first time, and 13 more before the turn of the century, a period during which many jockeys were under restricted contracts offering limited chances to search out mounts.

Even well into the 1900’s the list of triumphant first-timers is peopled primarily by riders whose names faded quietly into the mists of time – George Archibald? Andy Pinder? Charles Thompson? – recalled only by their two minutes of attachment to a Derby winner. But there have been some big names as well, and others of slightly lesser note associated with horses of historical significance.

It did not seem to bother future Hall of Famer Joe Notter in 1915 that he was riding a filly in his first Kentucky Derby, probably because that filly was Regret. Don Meade made his Derby debut on victorious Broker’s Tip a memorable one in 1933 when he ended up in a wrestling match instead of a horse race against Herb Fisher on Head Play. And if Henry Moreno was nervous about riding Dark Star in his first Derby in 1953 against the imposing Native Dancer he didn’t let it show, especially when Moreno ended up in the winner’s circle as the first Latin American jockey to take America’s most famous horse race.

Neither five-time Derby winners Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack nor four-time winner Bill Shoemaker won with their first Derby mounts. On the other hand, fellow Hall of Famers Don Brumfield, Albert Johnson, Charlie Kurtsinger, Milo Valenzuela, Willie Simms, Bill Boland, Eric Guerin, and William Knapp did.

Stewart Elliot was 39 when he won with his first Kentucky Derby mount, Smarty Jones, in 2004. Ron Franklin was 19 when he won with his only Kentucky Derby mount, Spectacular Bid, in 1979.

Hall of Famer Steve Cauthen was 17 in 1978 when he won with Affirmed, his first and only Kentucky Derby mount. Later, as the toast of another continent, Cauthen added two wins in the Epsom Derby.

The message is clear. If there’s a pattern of success with a first-time Derby mount, it is well hidden. This should be of some consolation to Mario Gutierrez, who at age 25 will be riding in his first Kentucky Derby on May 5 aboard Santa Anita Derby winner I’ll Have Another.

Gutierrez, a native of Mexico and two-time champion rider at Hastings Park in Vancouver, gave I’ll Have Another a polished ride through the nine furlongs last Saturday to defeat favored Creative Cause and Joel Rosario by a nose. Previously, Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another upset the Robert Lewis Memorial at 43-1, at a time when the rider was having trouble even getting mounts at Santa Anita.

Paul Reddam, the owner of I’ll Have Another, gave Gutierrez the chance to step up, and it has paid off, although Reddam did acknowledge before the Santa Anita Derby that the colt’s fate was not exactly in the hands of someone named Dominguez, Velazquez, or Gomez.

“He doesn’t have that big-race experience others have,” Reddam noted. “But it’s pretty obvious he gets along with this colt extremely well. So we’re trying to give him that experience in as many stakes races as we can.”

Hundreds of Reddam’s employees from his CashCall financial company crowded the winner’s circle Saturday in raucous celebration of the Santa Anita Derby, but the reaction was no less enthusiastic at Hastings Park, where fans of Gutierrez raised the rafters.

“We never had so many people cheering as we did the other day when Mario crossed that finish line,” said Vancouver racing writer and broadcaster Tom Wolski. “The whole grandstand, everyone in the press box. This was a big win for people up here.”

Wolski is a former jockey and long-time host of the weekly “Sport of Kings” television show in British Columbia that just won a 2011 Sovereign Award for broadcasting. Wolski has interviewed Gutierrez on scores of occasions and has appreciated his emerging skills for several years and documented his rise in the ranks of the region’s leading personalities.

“He’s very deserving of this,” Wolski said. “When he arrived here he didn’t have any English at all. He was very shy about talking with people, but after a couple of years he got the confidence he needed to communicate.

“He’s got a great set of hands,” Wolski went on. “He knows how to position his horse, and he’s got a great sense of timing. Patience is a real key to winning up here on this five-eighths racetrack. And he really doesn’t hit a horse. Trainers appreciate that kind of riding style.”

Apparently, Gutierrez also remembers where he’s come from. Last Saturday, in the wake of the Derby, Wolski left a message on the rider’s phone, figuring it was a longshot he’d call back since the Gutierrez bandwagon would be filling up fast.

“About an hour later he calls me and apologized for taking so long,” Wolski said. “I asked him about going on to the Kentucky Derby, and of course he was thrilled at the prospect. But what he was most appreciative of was the fact that he would have been on his way back to Hastings Park if that horse hadn’t won the Robert Lewis earlier this year, that’s how tough it had been. It was the turning point in his life. He loved it here, but you know it’s always hard to go back.”