SPORTS

Becoming Canadian citizen as big as winning the Belmont, says jockey

06/01/2012 06:07 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 EDT
SURREY, B.C. - Mario Gutierrez is harbouring a dream that he considers just as big as winning the Belmont Stakes.

The 25-year-old jockey from Veracruz, Mexico, who will attempt to steer I'll Have Another to victory June 9 in the Belmont— the third jewel in horseracing's coveted Triple Crown — wants to become a Canadian citizen.

"I can't really talk about that because I don't want to get (in trouble with Canadian) Immigration," Gutierrez told The Canadian Press late Thursday night following a media availability session with reporters in Surrey, B.C.

"I'll tell you when I get it," he added with a smile.

With a victory in the Belmont, Canadian-owned I'll Have Another and Gutierrez would become the first horse and jockey since Affirmed and Steve Cauthen in 1978, to win the Triple Crown.

Gutierrez fell in love with Canada while honing his skills for six seasons at Vancouver's Hastings Racecourse.

He and I'll Have Another, owned by Paul Reddam of Windsor, Ont., hit the big-time in the U.S. in May with victories in the vaunted Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

The jockey came back to Vancouver following the Derby win and is hoping the return to his adopted hometown following the Preakness triumph will spell yet another payoff for punters.

"I came here to clear my head," said Gutierrez. "There's a lot of pressure. Even when I say I don't try to think about it too much, it gets you once in a while. But I think what's important is, I have a lot of support and I feel comfortable."

Gutierrez will try to get accustomed to Belmont Park by riding in other races there next week before the biggest race.

"A lot of people want to give you advice," he said. "But at the end of the day it is just going to be me and my horse. I just want to prepare myself 100 per cent for that day. I'm going to do my homework. Nobody believed in the horse at the Kentucky Derby. They told me I was going to melt down. Too many people (said) the same thing for the Preakness.

"You can't change the way people are going to think because they're going to tell you about it. I just want to be there on my best — because my horse will be at his best and whatever's meant to happen it will happen."

The Belmont almost didn't happen for I'll Have Another. He barely escaped injury Thursday when another equine got out of control during training at the New York track and nearly collided with him.

"I saw the pictures and thank God nothing happened," said Gutierrez.

If he and I'll Have Another prevail again, Gutierrez plans to dedicate the victory to his first family in Mexico and second family of supporters in Vancouver.

However, the task will be more difficult this time. At a mile and a half, the Belmont is the longest of the three Triple Crown races.

Acknowledging the extra distance will pose a "huge" challenge, Gutierrez said he will just let I'll Have Another show how good a horse he is.

The underdog colt was originally acquired as a yearling for $11,000 by an exercise rider. Reddam picked him up for $35,000 as a two-year-old at the Ocala breeder's sale.

But Gutierrez is not thinking about winning the Triple Crown.

"What I'm thinking about is just to be prepared for the Belmont," he said. "I don't think about Triple Crown right now because you need to win three races to get the Triple Crown. We already have two. So I just try to prepare for one race, the Belmont, and we'll see how it turns out."

Some Vancouverites and others from across Canada will go to New York to see Gutierrez try to make history. But Glen Todd, a Vancouver horse owner who helped Gutierrez get started at Hastings and then Santa Anita in California, will not join them.

Todd, a 65-year-old father of two daughters, described Gutierrez as "sort of like the son I never had." But the owner does not feel he belongs at the Belmont.

"In his mind, he'd be thinking, 'I better go and see Glen' — that's just wrong," said Todd, a second-generation horseman. "That's just the wrong place for me to be. I can be here with my family and we can enjoy it. He can call me right after the race. I've been in the racing business a long time, and I wouldn't want anybody interfering with my horse — and I'm not going to interfere with their horse."

Todd said Gutierrez's return north of the 49th parallel helped put the jockey at ease in a place where he "feels like he's at home."

"Now, he's gotta focus on going back, finishing that last leg and being part of history," said Todd.

Following the Belmont, Gutierrez intends to compete at Woodbine in the Toronto area, while quietly looking forward to the day he can become a Canadian citizen.

"It will mean a lot to me," he said.

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