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by Steve Haskin, @SteveHaskin, Blood-Horse

OK, is this kid for real? We all know by now that Mario Gutierrez came to Santa Anita from tiny Hastings Race Course in Vancouver, B.C. and rocketed to stardom faster than any jockey in memory. But to listen to him discuss his success and to watch him ride, one has to wonder if he isn’t actually is some android, programmed to ride a racehorse with total perfection and say all the right things.

In short, the 25-year-old native of Veracruz, Mexico seems almost too good to be true. One day he is a struggling rider with an 86-year-old agent about to pack up his bags and head back to Hastings and the next he is on the threshold of winning the Triple Crown. Was it destiny that brought owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill to his rescue by taking a huge chance and putting this unknown rider up on their star 3-year-old I’ll Have Another? At least he was a star in their eyes. Gutierrez’ presence on the back of the son of Flower Alley   no doubt was a major contributor to the colt’s absurdly high odds of 43-1 in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II).

Well, four victories later and with history staring them in the face, Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another are now America’s hottest couple.

For now, Gutierrez just wants to soak up his remarkable victory in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) before focusing his attention on the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and the Triple Crown.

“I’m trying not to think too much about the Belmont,” Gutierrez said on a national teleconference that seemed to bring out just about every journalist in Western Canada. “I just want to chill out a little. When the time comes start I’ll start preparing for the Belmont. I’ll get there early and ride over the track and watch video of past Triple Crown winners and the horses in the Belmont. I try not to put too much pressure on myself. Whatever is meant to happen will happen. If I give 100% and I’ll Have Another gives 100% I’ll be happy. So far, he’s always given me 100% and that’s what gives me so much confidence.”

So much has happened in his life since the day he was told by agent Ivan Puhich to go to O’Neill’s barn and work one of his 3-year-olds who was supposed to be a runner, having already finished second in last year’s Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) behind grade I winner Creative Cause before being sidelined with sore shins suffered in the Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes (gr. I).

“At first I thought he was joking,” Gutierrez said. “I was surprised the way the horse moved. I knew right away he was a good horse. I told my agent afterward they weren’t going to use me on a horse this good. He was different from any other horse I’ve ever ridden. He was so professional the way he moved. It was like being in an expensive sports car with a lot of gears. He’d go faster every time you asked him. You have no idea how much he loves racing. He never hesitates. He loves to fight and catch horses. It’s an amazing feeling to be on top of him. I’m positive he knows exactly where the wire is. He’s capable of doing amazing things and has the biggest heart ever.

“I can’t be thankful enough to Mr. Reddam and Doug. They didn’t have to stick with me. They gave me this wonderful opportunity and I’m so happy I didn’t disappoint them. They didn’t listen to all the people who were knocking me down and telling them this was too big for me. Doug and Mr. Reddam are the coolest guys and they never put any pressure on me. They’re on my side and always have been supportive and give me confidence.”

Despite his mercurial rise to stardom, Gutierrez remains just as loyal and grateful to Hastings Race Course and all the people in Vancouver who have showered him with congratulations and accolades.

“I know I still have a lot to learn, and that everything I have right now is because of I’ll Have Another,” he said. “If it wasn’t for him I’d probably be back in Vancouver. Hastings is not even considered a real racetrack by a lot of people; just a bullring. I was getting all ready to go back to Vancouver, which is still my second home. It was Hastings that gave me the opportunity to give my family back home a better life, so it would be selfish of me not to be grateful to everyone in Vancouver. They are my second family. I’m so happy to be able to share this with everyone there and make them proud of me.”

When told there were 12,000 people at Hastings jumping for joy and hugging strangers after the Preakness, Gutierrez was noticeably moved.

“It just makes me so happy,” he said. “They’ve adopted me as a Canadian. I’m glad to have them in my life and I don’t ever want them to go away. It is great that people now know there is a Hastings Race Course.”

So, why did a young jockey from Mexico, who grew up riding in Quarter-Horse match races, choose Hastings Race Course of all places to move to and start a new life?

“I didn’t choose Hastings; Hastings chose me,” Gutierrez said. “A trainer from Hastings was in Mexico on vacation and saw me ride. He was looking for an apprentice and offered me a job riding there. He helped me with my paperwork and my visa and I’ve been there ever since. It was a wonderful opportunity and allowed me to be comfortable for the past five to six years.”

Gutierrez feels he’s gained a great deal of experience riding in Quarter Horse races and at a tight-turned track like Hastings.

“I rode Quarter-Horses from ages 12 to 17,” Gutierrez said. “Match racing is very popular in Mexico. “I was a kid racing with big guys and they told me about riding Thoroughbreds at Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City. I had learned a lot about breaking from the gate from riding Quarter-Horses, which go from zero to 40 mph quickly and it’s all over in less than 20 seconds. So I moved to Mexico City to ride Thoroughbreds. I wanted to try to do something better with my life. We used to have nothing, and I knew I would never get an education, because my family didn’t have the money to send me to school.”

Gutierrez admitted he didn’t know much about the Triple Crown or Thoroughbred racing in America until he went to Vancouver.

“I only knew about Quarter-Horse racing growing up,” he said. “After I went up to Vancouver I started to learn more about the history of Thoroughbred racing.”

Now he is on the verge of making history of his own.

When Gutierrez won the Kentucky Derby, he said it was an emotional experience, and he could be seen openly crying as he neared the winner’s circle

“I was in shock,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it was happening to me.”

People say Gutierrez is so cool under pressure he has ice water in his veins. But he could only laugh at that.

“It’s I’ll Have Another who gives me so much confidence,” he said. “I’m just an ordinary person.”

Sorry, Mario, you may be a person and not an android, but there is nothing ordinary about you.

BELMONT STAKES TABLES (Courtesy of America's Best Racing)

Belmont Stakes possible starters

Horse Trainer Last race
Alpha Kiaran McLaughlin 12th, Kentucky Derby
Atigun Ken McPeek Won optional claiming race at Churchill on 5-5
Dullahan Dale Romans 3rd, Kentucky Derby
Five Sixteen Dominick Schettino 4th, allowance at Aqueduct on 4-18
Guyana Star Dweej Doodnauth Shivmangal  2nd, optional claiming race at Belmont on 4-27
I’ll Have Another Doug O’Neill  Won Preakness Stakes
Optimizer D. Wayne Lukas 6th, Preakness Stakes
Paynter Bob Baffert Won allowance race at Pimlico on 5-19
Ravelo's Boy Manny Azpurua 5th, Tampa Bay Derby (G2) on 3-10
Rousing Sermon Jerry Hollendorfer 8th, Kentucky Derby
Street Life Chad Brown 3rd, Peter Pan S. at Belmont on 5-12
Union Rags Michael Matz 7th, Kentucky Derby
Unstoppable U Ken McPeek Won optional claiming race at Belmont on 4-27

Triple Crown winners

Year   Horse Owner Jockey Trainer
1978 Afffirmed Harbor View Farm Steve Cauthen Laz Barrera
1977 Seattle Slew Karen Taylor Jean Cruguet Billy Turner
1973 Secretariat Meadow Stable Ron Turcotte Lucien Lauren
1948 Citation Calumet Farm Eddie Arcaro Jimmy Jones
1946 Assault King Ranch Warren Meehrtens Max Hirsch
1943 Count Fleet Mrs. John D. Hertz   John Longden Don Cameron
1941 Whirlaway Calumet Farm Eddie Arcaro Ben Jones
1937 War Admiral Samuel Riddle Charlie Kurtsinger George Conway
1935 Omaha Belair Stud William Saunders James Fitzsimmons
1930 Gallant Fox Belair Stud Earle Sands James Fitzsimmons
1919 Sir Barton J.K.L. Ross John Loftus H. Guy Bedwell

Triple Crown bids ended in Belmont Stakes

Year   Triple Crown hopeful    Belmont finish   Winner
2008 Big Brown DNF Da’ Tara
2004 Smarty Jones 2nd Birdstone
2003 Funny Cide 3rd Empire Maker
2002 War Emblem 8th Sarava
1999 Charismatic 3rd Lemon Drop Kid
1998 Real Quiet 2nd Victory Gallop
1997 Silver Charm 2nd Touch Gold
1989 Sunday Silence 2nd Easy Goer
1987 Alysheba 4th Bet Twice
1981 Pleasant Colony 3rd Summing
1979 Spectacular Bid 3rd Coastal
1971 Canonero II 4th Pass Catcher
1969 Majestic Prince 2nd Arts and Letters
1968 #Forward Pass 2nd Stage Door Johnny
1966 Kauai King 4th Amberoid
1964 Northern Dancer 3rd Quadrangle
1961 Carry Back 7th Sherluck
1958 Tim Tam 2nd Cavan
1944 Pensive 2nd Bounding Home
1936 Bold Venture did not start Granville
1932 Burgoo King did not start Faireno

#Won Kentucky Derby via disqualification 

I'll Have Another Winning the Kentucky Derby

I'll Have Another Winning the Preakness

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