05/03/2012 10:50AM

Kentucky Derby 2012: Four jockeys get first shot at the roses

Benoit & Associates
I'll Have Another will be jockey Mario Gutierrez's first mount in the Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mario Gutierrez watched Animal Kingdom win the Kentucky Derby last year on a television in the jockeys’ room at Hastings Race Course in Vancouver, Canada. Little could he have possibly known that he would be riding in the Derby the following year.

“It’s every jockey’s fantasy,” said Gutierrez, who has the mount on I’ll Have Another in the 138th Run for the Roses on Saturday. “It is what you dream about. I feel very lucky to be here.”

Gutierrez, 25, is one of four jockeys who will be riding in the Derby for the first time, although that could become five if My Adonis was to make it off the also-eligibles list as No. 21 with Elvis Trujillo aboard.

Gutierrez, one of four brothers who grew up on a small farm in Vera Cruz, Mexico, was a two-time leading rider at Hastings before moving briefly to Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco, then, more recently, to the ultra-tough Southern California circuit. His improbable journey from obscurity to being in the starting gate for the world’s most famous horse race is not unlike those of other first-time Derby jockeys, including the others in this renewal.

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Sheldon Russell, who has the mount on Done Talking, took a circuitous route to Louisville. Russell, 24, was born in Bossier City, La., moved with his parents to South Africa as an infant, then spent his formative years in England before coming to America to work for trainer Michael Dickinson about six years ago.

“I consider myself English because that’s where I had most of my schooling, and those are the early years I remember best,” said Russell, now a leading rider on the Maryland circuit. “We would watch the Derby over there, but not as much as you do here. The race was late at night. When I came to work for Dickinson, I realized it was a really big thing.”

[KENTUCKY DERBY FIELD: Watchmaker's odds, video contender profiles]

Luis Contreras, rider of Prospective, has become the top jockey at Woodbine near Toronto, having won 211 races there last year, narrowly missing the track record. Contreras, 26, is a native of Mexico City. Last year, he became the first jockey ever to sweep the Canadian Triple Crown on different horses, taking the prestigious Queen’s Plate aboard a filly, Inglorious, before winning the Prince of Wales and Breeders’ Stakes aboard Pender Harbour.

Colm O’Donoghue, who will be aboard Daddy Long Legs, has become one of the go-to jockeys for Aidan O’Brien, the iconic Irish trainer whose stable is the most dominant force in European racing. O’Donoghue, a 31-year-old Irish native, has ridden in the Irish Derby, the Epsom Derby, and the French Derby and will complete a superfecta of sorts with his first ride in the Kentucky version. He is no stranger to big-time American racing, having won the Grade 1 Secretariat last summer at Arlington Park aboard Treasure Beach and the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland last fall on Together.

The last first-time jockey to win the Derby was Stewart Elliott (Smarty Jones, 2004), who became the first to do so in 25 years, after Ronnie Franklin (Spectacular Bid, 1979). In all, first-time riders have won the Derby 41 times, although obviously many of those came in the race’s infancy.

[KENTUCKY DERBY WORKOUTS: Latest updates, Mike Welsch's video reports]

Of the 16 jockeys in this renewal with Derby experience, four have smelled the roses, most notably Kent Desormeaux and Calvin Borel, both of whom have a chance to win for the fourth time. Desormeaux rides Dullahan, and Borel has the mount on Take Charge Indy. Only Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack (five wins) and Bill Shoemaker (four) won the Derby more than three times. The other prior winners of the race with mounts this year are Mike Smith (Bodemeister) and John Velazquez (Went the Day Well).