06/15/2006 11:00PM

Rider's transition from Mexico looks smooth

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Apprentice rider Mario Gutierrez made a positive impression in his first weekend of riding at Hastings. Gutierrez, who rode 12 horses, won a couple of races and finished second five times. Not a bad start for someone who had just stepped off the plane and hadn't even worked a horse here.

Gutierrez said he was the leading apprentice rider in Mexico City in 2005, and this year he had won 38 races from 255 mounts before he decided to give Hastings a try.

"It was a good opportunity to ride at a different track," Gutierrez said in his native Spanish. Local trainer Sandra Van Oostdam, who is fluent in Spanish, was kind enough to serve as interpreter.

Gutierrez, 19, has been around horses all his life. His father raises and trains Quarter Horses in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Gutierrez, who began riding Thoroughbreds last year, had plenty of experience riding Quarter Horses before he made the switch.

"In the smaller towns in Mexico they run a lot of match races with Quarter Horses," he said. "And sometimes they'll get a few horses, so I had a lot of practice riding in company. I've been riding horses for as long as I can remember, but only in races since I was 14."

Terry Jordan, the leading trainer at the Hastings meet and a former jockey agent, helped Gutierrez make his way to Canada. Jordan spends quite a bit of time in Mexico, and on one of his trips there, he saw Gutierrez ride in Mexico City.

"We didn't have any bugs at Hastings at the time, and I was very impressed with the way he rode in a very competitive environment," said Jordan. "He looks great on a horse, and when he's finishing, he sits so low that you can hardly tell that he's on the horse. He also seemed like a nice kid when I met him, and I think he's going to do very well here. I think he impressed a lot of people last weekend."

Although Gutierrez is off to a strong start, he feels he's still in the process of adjusting to the smaller Hastings oval, which is just over five furlongs in circumference.

"It's a lot different riding here," he said. "There's a lot more room riding on a mile track. It's a big adjustment, but I should do better with a bit more experience riding on the smaller track."

Gutierrez, who will lose his bug on July 27, doesn't speak much English and is planning on taking lessons while he's here. So far the language barrier doesn't seem to be a problem. Nevertheless, that didn't stop his agent, Wayne Snow, from teaching Gutierrez a few important words: "That's a nice horse. I would like to ride him back."

With the impressive start last weekend, there's a good chance Gutierrez will be riding a lot of nice horses back.

Cherokee Freedom due for a break

Trainer John Snow was pleased with the winning ride Gutierrez gave on Cherokee Freedom in a maiden special weight race Saturday. Snow nominated Cherokee Freedom to the 1 1/16-mile CTHS Sales Stakes, which goes next weekend, but he probably isn't going to run her there.

"She came out of her race in good shape, but she's been running every two weeks since we opened the meet," he said. "She deserves a bit of a break. I think she's cut out to be a really nice filly, and I have a feeling if I ran her back again so soon it could fry her."

Snow will run Miss Me Not instead in the CTHS Sales Stakes. She's coming off a win in a $50,000 optional sprint June 4, and she'll be stretching out for the first time since she finished second in the Fantasy Stakes last year.

"I think she'll improve in her second try at the distance," said Snow. "Her feet were bothering her at the beginning of the meet, but right now they're perfect. We'll keep Jorge on her. He really suits her, and he does a great job of riding her."

Snow was referring to Jorge Espitia. The reason he likes the way Espitia rides Miss Me Not is that she doesn't have any speed - and it's not easy keeping a come-from-behind horse out of trouble at Hastings.

"I also like her chances stretching out, because the fields usually spread out a lot more when they go long," Snow said. "Hopefully she won't have to go around or through as many horses when she gets motoring."