The month of May transformed jockey Mario Gutierrez’s life, as he rode underdog I’ll Have Another to stunning wins at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Then chance cut the other way. The horse was injured and scratched from the Belmont Stakes at the last moment, barely 24 hours before the Saturday race. It snatched away Mr. Gutierrez’s shot at horse racing history, the Triple Crown, last won in 1978.
“Everybody says I feel disappointed,” said Mr. Gutierrez in an interview on Sunday, the day after, as a spectator, he watched Union Rags win the Belmont.
“I’m not feeling disappointed at all. I was a little bit sad [Saturday] – I wanted to race my horse, I know we had a ginormous chance to make history, but we’re not disappointed. We’re thinking about the horse. I have nothing to be disappointed about.”
The 25-year-old jockey’s ascent races ahead.
One prominently circled date is Canada Day, a return to race at Hastings Park in east Vancouver, where Mr. Gutierrez honed his talent and style for six years, his second home after moving north from Mexico, where he grew up.
Mr. Gutierrez may also race in Toronto in two weeks to contest the Queen’s Plate, Canada’s most prestigious race – but the horse he would ride, Perfect Tay, has struggled recently and may not run.
For Mr. Gutierrez, the most important business is in the Los Angeles area, the capital of horse racing on the West Coast. It was there, last winter when he was a nobody, that an unlikely series of chance events unfolded to land him atop I’ll Have Another.
Now, the goal is to cement his reputation against some of the toughest competition around. Mr. Gutierrez has to prove his rides at the Derby and the Preakness were no flukes, as he attempts to confirm his dizzying vault to the top tier of North American jockeys. His winnings this year place him 17th among more than 1,400 jockeys, far higher than his previous season-best ranking, 158th in 2007 when he was jockey of the year in Vancouver.
There’s work to do. Mr. Gutierrez has raced 23 times since his victory at the Preakness – but has only won twice.
In L.A., he is represented by veteran jockey agent Ivan Puhich, an 85-year-old ex-marine, and will race at Betfair Hollywood Park through mid-July, then the rest of the summer near San Diego at Del Mar, before returning to the L.A. area when racing at Santa Anita begins again in the fall.
On Sunday, Mr. Gutierrez said one of the first things he needs to do in L.A., is find a more proper home, a larger apartment than the short-term hotel-apartment he’s used through this year. And for an athlete who was on the verge of history, he presents a tremendous humility. Asked whether the phone rings off the hook, trainers and owners clamouring for his services, Mr. Gutierrez parries.
“You know hopefully my business starts to pick up a little bit more,” he said in the interview. “I don’t want anybody to give me anything I don’t deserve. I want to work for everything. We’ll see.”
He’s a young man who has ridden a sudden and dizzying rocket to fame, winning two iconic American horse races, watching the L.A. Lakers courtside near Jack Nicholson, tossing out the first pitch at a Dodgers game. He was a central character in the movie-like hype NBC was putting into marketing its Belmont coverage and, last Thursday night, was on late-night TV, NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Mr. Fallon asked whether the jockey spoke English or Spanish to his horse. English, said Mr. Gutierrez, saying of the horse, “I don’t think he can learn Spanish,” to many laughs from the studio crowd in New York.
A book, and maybe a movie, will probably come from the fairy tale of Mr. Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another – ideas are already in the early stages, said Glen Todd, the Vancouver horse owner for whom Mr. Gutierrez rode and lived with the past four years.
“It’s still a great story,” said Mr. Todd on Sunday. “I guess it would have been an even greater story if he had won the Belmont. It’s a little anti-climactic. It’s a still a great story.”
On Canada Day at Hastings Park in Vancouver, Mr. Gutierrez will ride a Todd horse.
Mr. Todd also brokered the potential ride for the 153rd running of the Queen’s Plate in Toronto. He was contacted by an old friend, trainer Lorne Richards, and asked if Mr. Gutierrez was available to ride a promising horse called Perfect Tay. Todd pitched the idea to Mr. Gutierrez and the jockey agreed.
But Perfect Tay, bred by Canadian diamond explorer and horse racing veteran Charles Fipke, has faltered. The three-year-old chestnut colt – just like I’ll Have Another – won a race there in March but since slipped, finishing 10th of 11 horses last weekend at a Woodbine race, never in contention.
Mr. Richards will assess whether the horse will run in the Queen’s Plate this week.
“It’s 50-50, at best,” he said on Sunday.
The Queen’s Plate, whether he runs or not, is just one of a sprawling bouquet of opportunities for Mr. Gutierrez. “It’s opened a lot of doors,” he said.
“My life will keep going. I’m going to do the usual. Wake up in the mornings, and go to work. I have to really think about what I want to do. I haven’t really planned a lot of things ahead of me. There’s a lot of things I have to decide.”