Even during his darkest days, Mario Gutierrez knew he'd return to the Kentucky Derby.
Four years ago, a 25-year-old Gutierrez guided I'll Have Another to victory in the Derby and Preakness before a tendon injury prevented the horse from trying to complete American racing's Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Following that bitter disappointment, Gutierrez returned to Vancouver's Hastings Racecourse — where he was the top rider in 2007-08 — but struggled to find the winner's circle, prompting suggestions he simply got lucky with I'll Have Another.
Gutierrez returns to Churchill Downs on Saturday aboard Nyquist, the Canadian-owned 3-1 early Derby favourite. The unbeaten horse is owned by J. Paul Reddam of Windsor, Ont., and trained by Doug O'Neill, who were also I'll Have Another's owner and conditioner, respectively.
"I never spoke it out loud but I always knew when I was at Hastings somehow I was going to make it back to the Kentucky Derby," Gutierrez said via telephone from Louisville, Ky. "Even when I was doubting myself, deep, deep inside I never stopped believing in myself.
"I give a lot of credit to my wife for my success the past two years . . . because of her I've invested more in myself now."
Gutierrez's wife, Rebecca, suggested he start seeing a sports psychologist. He also works with strength and stretching coaches.
"I really don't feel a lot of pressure, I feel very very confident," Gutierrez said of riding the '16 Derby favourite. "As a rider I think I've grown up, I have more experience than four years ago.
"I was very very lucky to win four years ago on my first time at the Kentucky Derby. I'm not the same rider now. I've matured and that makes me more confident. I don't want to sound like I think everything is going to go right but I'm definitely confident in my team, my horse and myself."
Gutierrez admits he was lacking confidence following his successful stint with I'll Have Another. But the native of Veracruz, Mexico, knew the first time he rode Nyquist the horse was special.
Gutierrez has ridden the three-year-old to victory in all seven of his starts, earning over US$2.3 million.
"I've been riding this horse since his very first workout," Gutierrez said. "He's a horse that's very professional.
"He acts very mature, has very positive energy and behaves like a horse that's been doing this for several years which is very rare in three-year-olds. He makes me really extra confident the fact that he's going into the race at his best."
Reddam, a diehard Detroit hockey fan, named Nyquist after Red Wings forward Gustav Nyquist. But Reddam arrived at I'll Have Another because of his love of cookies.
Nyquist earned the '15 Eclipse award for champion two-year-old in the U.S., and clinched his Derby spot by winning last month's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, defeating previously unbeaten Mohaymen.
Nyquist breaks from the No. 13 post Saturday — the same position he won the 2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile from — in a 20-horse field. In 2012, I'll Have Another became the first Derby winner to leave from Post 19.
"We see it as a positive knowing we won already from the same position last year," Gutierrez said. "The field is something that's going to be a factor not only for me but all the horses in the race.
"We have to be aware of our situation and make a good plan and have not only Plan A but B, C, D and even E. For a race of this magnitude we want to really be prepared as much as we can."
The problems a big field presents are getting caught in traffic and having to jostle for position.
"We want to stay out of trouble, break clean and find a good position," Gutierrez said. "Ideally we don't get into a bumpy situation with anybody."
Any disappointment Gutierrez felt about not racing for the 2012 Triple Crown was overshadowed by the joy he experienced winning the Derby on his first attempt. While being careful not to look too far ahead, Gutierrez has a quiet confidence regarding Nyquist's ability to follow in American Pharoah's footsteps and capture the American Triple Crown.
"He's really really good," Gutierrez said of Nyquist. "Our team is really grounded, we don't want to think too much but at the same time we believe he has the potential to go all the way.
"Since he won at the Breeders' Cup, we've had a plan with him . . . even though Doug was criticized a lot for only running him twice before the Kentucky Derby. To win the Triple Crown, we believe as a team we're going to need a fresh horse and we're going to have a fresh horse."
And although Gutierrez is back in racing's limelight, he cherishes his time at Hastings Racetrack.
"The support I get from the people in Vancouver is just amazing," he said. "Everytime I get the opportunity to go back there, I always feel pressure because I want to win so bad for them.
"My wife comments I celebrate a stakes win at Hastings more than I do when I win here in the U.S."