He’d popped back twice to sign autographs and pose for pictures, tell a thirsting local media all about it, and even find time to hang out a bit and play the slots at Fraser Downs in Surrey.
But now, Super Mario was coming home to do what he does best – to ride.
Long before the gifted Mexican jockey, Mario Gutierrez, became a continent-wide sensation by guiding I’ll Have Another to thrilling victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, he was a fixture at Vancouver’s bandbox Hastings Racecourse.
Mr. Gutierrez spent six years riding the horses and honing his trade at Hastings, after arriving here from Mexico City as an unschooled 19-year-old.
On Monday, he was back in the saddle on a couple of mounts at the local track for the first time since fame hit him square in the face. He could not have been more pleased.
“It feels awesome. I couldn’t wait to be here,” he told reporters a few hours before donning the silk and heading out to Hastings’ familiar old starting gate on the back of Devil in Disguise.
“Just to do what I used to do, to ride with these jockeys, here at Hastings, it’s such an honour. I feel so happy just to be here,” said Mr. Gutierrez, his infectious grin as wide as the backstretch.
Befitting the homecoming hero, his storybook ride continued on his first race back. It was as if he’d never been away.
Mr. Gutierrez, twice the leading jockey at Hastings, held his horse back, then, just before the stretch, began driving him hard along the rail toward the finish line. Devil in Disguise cruised home a comfortable two lengths in front, bringing rare tears to the eyes of its crusty owner Glen Todd.
“I’m not an emotional guy, but I’m so glad for Mario that he came back and won,” said Mr. Todd, who has mentored Mr. Gutierrez since he first arrived in Vancouver. “He ran a great race, too.”
The large crowd on hand at the 113-year-old track roared when Mario’s mount crossed the line in front. They roared even more when the beaming jockey told them from the winner’s circle: “What can I say? This is my home.”
There were many young, first-time attendees at the track, attracted by Mr. Gutierrez’s celebrity status and cute-ish good looks.
“I don’t care about Justin Bieber,” 14-year old Siera Kelly told her grandmother. “I’m in love with Mario.”
Mr. Gutierrez’s winning ride came in the card’s fourth race, the Chris Loseth Handicap, bringing Mr. Todd a cool $30,000. He rode later in the day’s feature event, the $50,000 Lieutenant-Governor’s Handicap, aboard a former horse of the year, St. Liams Halo, also owned by Mr. Todd. But there was no Mario magic this time – St. Liams Halo, a poor mudder, finished fourth.
Not even the rain and a sloppy track could dampen Mr. Gutierrez’s spirits at returning to Hastings.
“Hey, I’m used to this kind of weather,” he said beforehand. “I’ve only been gone for a short time. I think I still know how to race here.”
His loyalty towards a track as far from horse racing’s big time as the Durham Bulls are from baseball’s major leagues is remarkable from such a celebrated young jockey, who could likely ride anywhere.
But Mr. Gutierrez is not someone to forget his roots. No matter how high-profile his interviewer in the United States, he rarely fails to mention his debt to Hastings Racecourse up in Vancouver.
He still considers the city home, and Mr. Todd, who took him in and housed him for four years, his second father.
In time, Mr. Gutierrez said he hopes to become a Canadian citizen. “All I can say is, we’re working on it,” he exclaimed, his face lighting up again in a big smile.
For Hastings, which has known little outside attention since Johnny Longden won his 6000th career victory there in 1965, Mario’s success has been a bolt of lightning.
“He’s really brought a lot of attention and limelight to horse racing and Hastings,” said general manager Raj Mutti. “Thanks to him, horse racing is now more of an accepted, mainstream sport in this city. It’s a great story.”
After his fourth race victory, Hastings officials presented Mr. Gutierrez with a special memento – his very own lawn jockey, in the purple and white colours he wore for his Derby and Preakness triumphs.
Mr. Gutierrez seemed moved. “It looks just like me,” he said.
Goodness knows how he’ll feel next month when a Mario bobblehead doll will be unveiled at Hastings.