05/13/2012 06:42 EDT | Updated 07/13/2012 05:12 EDT

Vancouver racetrack basks in grand glory of pint-sized Kentucky Derby champ

VANCOUVER - Reins in hand, sun on his back, Mario Gutierrez's head was clear and his gut nerve-free as he crouched on his horse waiting for racing's loudest bell to launch riders out of the starting gate.

With the odds weighing 15-1 against his debut at the Kentucky Derby, the jockey's focus held fast on but a single target.

"I knew what I have to do and I knew the horse was going to help me. I was just ready, I was just ready for that big moment of my life," he said Sunday.

"It was one thing on my mind at that point — I didn't want to disappoint anybody. I just wanted to perform the best I could."

Before a crowd of 165,000 people, an unflappable Gutierrez sprinted to horse racing's most coveted title, clinching with it a spotlight for a Vancouver track that its champions hope will lead to a renaissance for the sport in Canada.

The 25-year-old credited Hastings Racecourse, in the city's east end, for his May 5 victory, along with a little luck, a good horse and faith of the British Columbia supporters who feted his homecoming Sunday at the humble track.

"It's Hollywood. He's come from Hastings Park to winning the biggest race in the world," said Glen Todd, a horse owner and longtime Gutierrez supporter who has taken the young man under his roof like a son.

"It's going to help Vancouver. I think he's done more for horse racing in six days than the rest of us have done in 20 years."

Gutierrez beamed from ear-to-ear furiously signing autographs for a long line of fans who had waited in the shadow of B.C. mountains to congratulate and hug the five-foot-two man for pulling off the upset at Churchill Downs.

He had trained for six years at the track before sudden victory in the big leagues, and his voice broke as he described his gratitude for those who helped him make it.

"Vancouver and Hastings gave me a lot of opportunities," he told reporters. "I came from a small family in Mexico, so being here and (getting) all the support for the trainers and owners, I finally have the opportunity to give my family a better living. I feel like home here."

The course has faced ups and downs in recent years, including a freak accident where a horse died mid-race and falling revenues that at one point last year threatened its potential closure.

But 8,000 people packed the stands to watch the Derby's livecast that weekend and the public is invited to watch Gutierrez' next big race this coming Saturday, held in Baltimore. He will compete in the second leg of racing's Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.

"I have 100 per cent confidence," Gutierrez said of his chances with colt I'll Have Another on May 19. "He's a super horse, he's so professional, he loves what he does. I have no doubts the horse is going to do so good."

It's that cool demeanour Todd and the equestrian's fans say will lead him to future success.

"His hands are gifted. He's got ice in his blood," said Todd, who won a five-figure sum from Gutierrez' Derby race.

"He was sitting still, sitting still, sitting still. Riders with bigger names were all moving too early. He just waited. He knew what he had, and when he asked the horse, boom! He went."

Fan Stewart Loseby, who also placed a bet on Gutierrez, said the jockey doesn't jerk and bounce like some.

"He's just the most natural, patient jockey. One of the most I've ever seen," said Loseby, who's followed the athlete since his arrival in Vancouver at age 19. "He's just so nice, the way that he rides."

Kim Herman said she hopes the stardom will set Hastings on new footing.

"I'm hoping it puts our track back on good standing and hopefully it'll bring more people out to horse racing," she said.

Gutierrez said the fame hasn't changed him, and all he wants to do is spread the love.

"It's nothing wrong to dream," he said. "If you have a dream and you follow it and you work hard, sometimes you just need a little luck and a little push and if you have that, great things can happen. It happened to me and I don't see why it won't happen to anybody else."