05/05/2016 7:50AM

This time, Gutierrez better prepared to handle the heat

Barbara D. Livingston
Mario Gutierrez, who won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I'll Have Another, goes for his second Derby win when he rides Nyquist on Saturday.

The surroundings at Churchill Downs on Saturday will be familiar to jockey Mario Gutierrez – the crowded and hectic scene in the paddock, the pageantry of the post parade, and the electric atmosphere as the field nears the gate for the Kentucky Derby.

He’s been there before, and the experience will prove invaluable.

Four years after Gutierrez rode I’ll Have Another to an upset victory in the Kentucky Derby for owners Paul and Zillah Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill, the 31-year-old is back for the same owners and trainer with Nyquist, the undefeated champion 2-year-old male of 2015.

“To have that opportunity twice in my life, it makes me feel good,” Gutierrez said in a recent interview at Los Alamitos.

The Reddams, O’Neill, and Gutierrez have been a team since early 2012. Gutierrez’s stock rose during his time with I’ll Have Another, then fell, and is back on the upswing this year.

Gutierrez was unknown in 2012 when he gained the mount on I’ll Have Another, having arrived in Southern California months earlier from Hastings Park. This year, he travels to Churchill Downs to ride Nyquist as an established rider in Southern California, and one more comfortable with attention.

At times during the 2012 Triple Crown season, Gutierrez struggled with the publicity that accompanies the series, turning down interviews on occasion. Now, Gutierrez is more experienced and mature, both on and off the track. He was married last year, and his wife, Rebecca, is pregnant with their first child.

Gutierrez also has a better grasp of English, a language he barely knew when he emigrated from Mexico to Vancouver to begin riding at Hastings Park in 2008.

“I was young,” he said in reflection of the 2012 Triple Crown. “I tried to do my best with what I knew.”

In 2012, Gutierrez had 52 wins and ranked 40th in the nation in earnings with $5.3 million. He dropped to 61st in earnings in 2013 with $3.7 million. Gutierrez fell to 100th in 2014, winning 50 races with mounts who earned $2.7 million.

The 2015 season turned brighter. Backed by a strong group of runners owned by the Reddams and trained by O’Neill, Gutierrez won 104 races with mounts who earned $6.3 million, a career-best total that ranked him 29th in the nation.

No California jockey is as closely allied with an individual stable as Gutierrez is with the Reddams and O’Neill. In the last year, Gutierrez has ridden the stakes winners Found Money, Frank Conversation, Gomo, and Mrazek for the Reddams and O’Neill.

Going into Kentucky Derby week, Gutierrez’s four stakes wins this year have been for them – the California Derby and El Camino Real Derby with Frank Conversation, who is scheduled to start in Saturday’s $300,000 American Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs, and the San Vicente Stakes and Florida Derby on Nyquist.

“There isn’t a written contract, but he’s basically the stable rider for Paul and Zillah,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill said he has learned to admire Gutierrez’s work ethic and dedication.

“He’s in a good place from the outside looking in,” O’Neill said. “He’s in a good place mentally. The confidence that Mario has with Nyquist gives confidence to Nyquist. They really get along well. Mario is very patient.”

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Gutierrez will need a cool demeanor on Saturday aboard Nyquist. I’ll Have Another was a 15-1 longshot in 2012. Nyquist is likely to be favored to extend his unbeaten streak to eight races.

Nyquist has been a personal project for Gutierrez since before the colt’s debut. He recalls working Nyquist before his first start last June. I’ll Have Another had three starts at 2 before Gutierrez gained the mount at the beginning of the colt’s 3-year-old season.

“I can’t compare them because I only rode I’ll Have Another as a 3-year-old,” Gutierrez said. “I rode him four times. With Nyquist, I’ve ridden him since his first work at Santa Anita. I was on him for his first quarter and his first three-eighths.”

From those early days, Gutierrez noted Nyquist’s power, speed, and acceleration.

“I think it’s all those things,” he said. “When he was a 2-year-old, he behaved like a 3-year-old. Now at 3, he behaves like an older horse. You feel the energy.”

Gutierrez traveled to Churchill Downs this week in the midst of an excellent start to the year. Through Sunday, he had 31 wins with mounts who had earned $3.4 million, ranking him 10th nationally. This success is not a fluke, he said. Gutierrez said he’s very comfortable competing with riders such as Mike Smith, Gary Stevens, and Rafael Bejarano in Southern California as well as nationally prominent riders with mounts in the Kentucky Derby.

“I have the experience,” he said. “I’ve been with these jockeys. I’ve won Grade 1 races all over North America. I’ve got experience.”

Gutierrez rode at Hastings Park and Golden Gate Fields from 2008 to late 2011 before moving to Southern California. He has retreated at times to Hastings Park in recent years, mostly to ride stakes, but has made Southern California his home.

Hastings is where Gutierrez became settled as a rider, learned English, and where he was befriended by owner Glen Todd and trainer Troy Taylor. They were a formidable team in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The Todd-Taylor connection has been replaced with the Reddams and O’Neill. Gutierrez, it seems, is well suited to be a team player.

“I have to think I’m lucky to be with good people,” he said. “There are a lot of talented guys that could have this opportunity. They must have seen something in me.”