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Mario Gutierrez looks to win Triple Crown for Mexican family, Canadian friends

05/23/2012 04:22 EDT | Updated 07/23/2012 05:12 EDT
One win away from thoroughbred history, Mario Gutierrez is riding for his family in Mexico and his friends in Vancouver.

And owner J. Paul Reddam of Windsor, Ont.

The 25-year-old Mexican jockey and his mount I'll Have Another are headed to the 144th Belmont Stakes on June 9, bidding for the first Triple Crown since 1978 when Affirmed won thoroughbred racing's biggest prize.

It's been a wild ride and it's not over.

But Gutierrez, now based in California, has not forgotten his roots and the people who helped him along the way.

That includes Vancouver's Hastings Racecourse, which became his home after he left Mexico in search of racing success.

"Because of Vancouver, I was able to give my family in Mexico a better life," he told a media conference call Wednesday.

He talks with affection of returning to Vancouver after the Kentucky Derby win, reconnecting "with my people."

"I have become so close to a few people in Vancouver that I have always called them my second family. So being there in Vancouver just makes me feel good."

He says he hears from his Vancouver circle every day and takes comfort in their support, confidence and happiness at his success.

"I'm just very happy that I got to share this with those people — there in Vancouver and my family back in Mexico. Making those people happy and making them proud, it's a wonderful feeling."

And he credits the small track in Vancouver for helping him improve as a jockey and teaching him how to operate in tight spaces at high speed.

For Gutierrez, his Triple Crown journey is also a love affair with his ride. The pride in his voice is evident when he speaks of I'll Have Another.

"He loves racing, you have no idea. It's such a wonderful feeling when I'm on his back. As soon as I ask him, he doesn't hesitate to give me 100 per cent. He likes to fight, he loves to catch people, he loves to be a winner. He's a fighter.

"It's just an amazing feeling when I'm on top of him."

The jockey talks of his horse as if human.

"I know he knows exactly where the wire is," he said of the finish line, adding: "He has the biggest heart, ever."

As the racing world shines its spotlight on Gutierrez, the young jockey is trying to take everything in stride. He deflects all the praise to his horse and those who believed enough in him to put him aboard I'll Have Another when others suggested that the horse was too big for the jockey.

"They didn't listen to those people and they stuck with me," he said of Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill. "I'm just so thankful for the opportunity ... I'm just happy I didn't disappoint them.

"They're wonderful guys ... they're on my side, they have given me a lot of confidence," added Gutierrez, who refers to Reddam as Mr. Reddam.

Gutierrez was riding in Mexico City when he was spotted by Terry Jordan, a Hastings Racecourse trainer who had gone to the track while on vacation.

"I didn't choose Hastings Park, Hastings Park chose me," said Gutierrez, who was an apprentice jockey at the time.

Once in Vancouver, some six years ago, he caught the eye of owner Glen Todd and trainer Troy Taylor, who welcomed the newcomer into their racing and family circles.

"You need these kind of people in your life," said Gutierrez. "I'm just glad that I found them in my life and I don't want them ever to go away.

"I do love Vancouver. I do think of Vancouver as my second home. I'm so happy they're proud of me and I'm so happy that hey, now people know that British Columbia has a race track."

Gutierrez recorded hundreds of wins there, before moving south last year to try his hand at Santa Anita Park in California.

That's where O'Neill and Reddam saw him. Needing a jockey for I'll Have Another, they had Gutierrez give him a go and put him up for the Grade 2 Robert Lewis Stakes.

Gutierrez thought his agent was joking when he got the call.

But it was legit and he got on the horse about two weeks before the Lewis, at a workout in Hollywood Park.

"I knew he was different than any other horse I had ridden in the past," he recalled.

"He's so professional — the way he moves. It was like me being in a sports car, a very expensive sports car with a lot of gears. And every time you switched gears to go faster, he will just give it to you. And that's amazing. Not many horses can do that."

They were a 43-1 longshot for the Lewis and Gutierrez was an unknown jockey. O'Neill's instructions were simple.

"He just told me 'Go there and have fun. Save the best for the end.'

They won by 2 3/4 lengths.

"I knew the horse was good. I just didn't know how good the other horses were."

Victories have followed in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Gutierrez says racing on big tracks is nothing new. He did it in Mexico City after racing quarter-horses from ages 12 to 17.

He chose racing because he liked it and wanted to better his life.

"I used to have nothing. I wasn't going to go to school because my family didn't have the resources to do that."

He has made it to the top, but acknowledges others have questioned his ability to succeed at this level.

"People haven't really believed in me since before the Santa Anita Derby. They thought all this was going to be too huge for me. I can't change the way people think."

He might do just that on June 9, however, although he is realistic anything can happen on a racetrack.

"I know this is not a TV show, this is horse racing. Everyone is going to be there to win the race."

This week, he says, he plans to chill out. He's trying not to put too much pressure on himself.

"Whatever is meant to happen, it will happen," he said.

There is plenty of time to plan for the Belmont, although he is quick to say he has no doubts his horse can handle the longer distance of a mile and a half.

"I believe in him 100 per cent. He's the one who got me to here, where I am right now," he said.

"There's still great horse in the races, so it's not going to be an easy race," he added.

It's the first Triple Crown attempt since 2008. And the 12th since Affirmed outduelled Alydar in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont 34 years ago.

Gutierrez is not predicting a win at Belmont. But he says I'll Have Another is not done yet.

"I believe he has something left to show to people, yes," he said.

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