Miguel Gutierrez grew up on a ranch in Mexico, learning everything there is to know about horses but never imagining he would have not one, but two, moments in the sun in Thoroughbred racing.
Gutierrez was jubilant as he watched American Pharoah take command at the outset of the Belmont Stakes in 2015 and gallop into history as the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years. Then, as head outrider for the New York Racing Association, he went to work.
He had the responsibility of riding to meet the history-making colt and Victor Espinoza, his ecstatic jockey, and accompanying them to the winner’s circle. Espinoza shared his joy with Gutierrez by embracing him before the two made a spontaneous decision and took off on a wonderful ride.
“I hope I don’t get into trouble,” Gutierrez said, “but everybody paid to see the horse. They should have a moment to see the horse.”
They paraded American Pharoah in front of the grandstand, prompting one tremendous ovation after another as veteran fans unleashed almost four decades of pent-up emotion. Gutierrez will never forget the roar of that crowd.
“That was crazy,” Gutierrez said. “That was the most beautiful thing ever.”
Members of Gutierrez’s family were filled with pride as they watched the scene unfold. “It was a great moment for racing, and a great moment to see our father be part of that history,” said Stephany, 25, the oldest of four daughters born to Gutierrez and his wife, Caroline.
And then, only last year, Gutierrez got to do it all again. This time, he had the honor of leading in undefeated Justify and his Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith, after they became the 13th pair to achieve racing immortality by completing the arduous Triple Crown sweep.
Gutierrez, 54, never envisioned an instant of notoriety when he left Mexico at age 19. He said he slipped across the border into the United States merely to seek employment and a chance to dramatically improve his standard of living.
“It’s a shame that a lot of people come to America to do bad stuff,” he said. “But most people I know, we come to work and have a better life than we ever have a chance to have in Mexico.”
He toiled for one year as a dishwasher and busboy in New York before he began working from the bottom up at the racetrack, first as a hotwalker and then as a groom. The 5-foot-4-inch Gutierrez soon learned to adjust the riding skills he learned as a boy so that he could gallop Thoroughbreds during morning training. He attempted to become a jockey before he realized he could not get light enough for that.
He has been an outrider for the New York Racing Association for the last 31 years and finds the work fulfilling.
“I was never a school person. The only thing I wanted was to be around horses,” Gutierrez said. “I thank God that God gave me the ability to ride horses. I enjoy it like you don’t believe.”
He even rides horses while vacationing with his family.
“I swear he came out of the womb and jumped on a horse. I think he was born for this job. He’s a real-life cowboy. That’s what my sisters and I always say,” said Stephany, referring to Samantha, 23; Sinead, 21; and Salma, 15.
Gutierrez’s days are long. He arrives at the track at 5 a.m. to be sure he is in position when training hours begin 30 minutes later. They conclude at 10 a.m. After he takes time to clean his equipment and eat lunch, he returns to work for that afternoon’s racing card if it is not a dark day.
His regimen is so strenuous that he relies on four ponies: Yes Yes Yes, Chowder, Summer Breeze and Pinball. They are called upon on alternate days.
“I have to have fresh horses to be able to run fast when we need them,” Gutierrez said.
He can only be as successful in corralling a loose horse as his mount allows him to be.
“You have to be a team with your horse,” Gutierrez said. “You have to teach him like a little kid, how to be quiet, how to be aggressive. You have to teach all of that, and it’s not easy. You have to have a lot of skills to do that.”
He emphasized that he continues to learn every day. He has been through many horses through the years in a search for the right fit, knowing that his mount’s failure to respond at a critical instant could lead to disaster if he is unable to gain control of a frightened horse.
“To me, horses are no different from human beings,” Gutierrez said. “Each one has his own attitude, each one has his own personality. Every horse is different, and you have to understand every single one.”
Gutierrez became an American citizen in the mid-1990s, providing him with yet another moment he always will treasure.