04/12/2012 2:30PM

Kentucky Derby mount a dream come true for Gutierrez

Shigeki Kikkawa
Mario Gutierrez, 25, won the Santa Anita Derby aboard I’ll Have Another for his first victory in a Grade 1 stakes. He will ride the colt in the Kentucky Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Mario Gutierrez was 17 in 2004 and had just finished high school in Veracruz, Mexico, when he announced his grand career plans to his parents. He wanted to move to Mexico City, and become a jockey.

“I said, ‘Let me try it in Mexico City for a year,’ ” he remembers.

A year, his parents said. Give it a year. If you are not successful, come home and head to college, they said.

After a year, Gutierrez was ready to leave Mexico City, but he went north, all the way to Hastings Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he became a leading rider.

Eight years after he left home, Gutierrez is at the top of American racing. Now 25, Gutierrez last weekend won his first Grade 1, riding I’ll Have Another to victory in the Santa Anita Derby.

I’ll Have Another will be his first mount in the Kentucky Derby on May 5. It will be Gutierrez’s first visit to Churchill Downs.

“This is everyone’s dream,” he said last Sunday morning at Santa Anita. “I’ll be ready. I know the horse even better.”

Gutierrez is expected to have at least two stakes mounts at Churchill Downs on Derby week. He also is scheduled to ride Handsome Mike in the $200,000 American Turf Stakes for 3-year-olds over 1 1/16 miles on grass on May 4.

Gutierrez was scheduled to ride Handsome Mike in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, but trainer Doug O’Neill said earlier this week that he was unsatisifed with the horse’s “energy” and opted to point for the turf race at Churchill Downs. Gutierrez is expected to ride at Santa Anita this Saturday.

Gutierrez, represented by veteran agent Ivan Puhich, began riding in Southern California last fall, at the insistence of trainer Troy Taylor, with whom he was closely allied at Hastings Park. When the Hastings Park season ended, Gutierrez decided to try Southern California, having ridden previously in the United States at several tracks, including Golden Gate Fields, Portland Meadows, and Turf Paradise.

Early in the Santa Anita meeting, Gutierrez rode a winner as owners Paul and Zillah Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill watched from the Frontrunner restaurant overlooking the track.

“Paul said, ‘Who is that? He looks great,’ ” O’Neill said last weekend.

At the time, I’ll Have Another had not started since a sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga in September, a layoff caused by sore shins. I’ll Have Another was nearing a comeback in the Grade 2 Robert Lewis Stakes and the colt’s owners, the Reddams, needed a rider. Leading jockeys such as Joel Rosario and Rafael Bejarano were already booked on other horses.

Reddam told O’Neill to have Gutierrez work I’ll Have Another. “No one is giving us a shot in the Lewis anyway,” O’Neill remembers Reddam saying.

I’ll Have Another led throughout the Lewis and won in a 43-1 upset.

Gutierrez had landed his first American graded stakes win.

“He’s a finesse rider,” O’Neill said. “He’s such a classy horse, and Mario rides him with a lot of class.”

The son of a Quarter Horse jockey and trainer, Gutierrez grew up around horses on a cattle farm. If his riding career had failed in Mexico City, he said he would have studied veterinary medicine. “I said I would go to school,” he said. “I wanted to take care of the farm.”

With his earnings in recent years, Gutierrez said he has bought his parents a house, the first one they have owned. The rider’s schedule makes it difficult to visit Mexico, he said.

Gutierrez remains close to Taylor and Glen Todd, the horse owner syndicate manager for North American Thoroughbred partnership, which has horses in Southern California. Gutierrez plans to stay in Southern California this summer, but back in Vancouver the three men were a team and even shared a house.

“They called us the two and a half men,” Gutierrez said.

Even with his recent success, Gutierrez is still trying to break into the Southern California jockey ranks. He has 11 wins at the current meeting, but did not have any mounts on last Sunday’s eight-race program.

At a press conference following the Santa Anita Derby, Gutierrez seemed stunned by his win on I’ll Have Another. Riding races such as the Santa Anita and Kentucky Derby seemed out of reach until recently.

“It’s every jockey’s dream, and I’m no different,” he said. “I used to watch races from Vancouver and I thought, ‘I’d like to ride those races.’ ”