ARCADIA, Calif. – Mario Gutierrez plans to be at Churchill Downs on Saturday, but they will run the Kentucky Derby without him.
The obscure young jockey burst into America’s consciousness last year by guiding I’ll Have Another to stunning victories in the Derby and Preakness – within reach of the elusive Triple Crown before the colt scratched on the day before the Belmont. This year, he will likely watch the sport’s biggest race on a TV in the jockeys’ quarters. He will ride a race or two earlier in the day at Churchill and then join 150,000 others as a spectator.
“It will be nice,” Gutierrez told Yahoo! Sports last week. “I get to watch it and not have any pressure.”
The flip side of no pressure is no glory. The 26-year-old is learning the hard truth of thoroughbred racing: jockeys who come out of nowhere for an intoxicating taste of Triple Crown stardom tend to return to nowhere shortly thereafter.
Winning the Kentucky Derby changed Mario Gutierrez’s life.
“When people ask who won the Kentucky Derby in 2012, my name will be right there,” he said. “I can always say I went there for the first time and won the Kentucky Derby.”
But it hasn’t really changed Mario Gutierrez’s career.
Through Sunday, he ranked a pedestrian 91st nationally among jockeys in purse money won in 2013 at $774,788. Jockeys generally earn 10 percent of the purse. He has not ridden much, with only 148 mounts this year – by contrast, national earnings leader Javier Castellano has 483 mounts. On Sunday at BetFair Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, he had just one ride, finishing fifth in a maiden-claiming race with a modest purse of $23,500.
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Gutierrez has won only 15 races this year, just three of them in the month of April. The phone is not ringing off the hook with trainers looking to put him on their horses. His star turn last spring simply hasn’t generated a lot of business.
The people who have stood by Gutierrez are the ones who gave him his shot in the first place: I’ll Have Another owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill.
Gutierrez was a nobody last spring when he booted home I’ll Have Another in the Derby at 15-1 odds. He’d done most of his riding at Hastings Park, a low-level outpost in Vancouver that might as well have been on the moon it was so far removed from Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. But Reddam and O’Neill stuck by the kid after he guided their 3-year-old colt to victories in the Lewis Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby last spring.
They’re still sticking by him – at least in non-marquee races. Of the 11 times Gutierrez has finished in the money in a race this April, seven have been on O’Neill horses. That includes his four most-recent top-three finishes.
“He’s still a great kid and a great rider,” said O’Neill, who will have another Derby rookie jockey, Kevin Krigger, on his colt Goldencents on Saturday. “For what he did for Mr. Reddam and me, he’ll forever have our support. He’s talented enough, he’s hard-working enough, he’s well-spoken enough that he’s going to have plenty of opportunities in the future.”
History suggests that may not be the case. At least not at the Triple Crown level.
Before Gutierrez, the last jockey to win the Kentucky Derby the first time he rode in it was Stewart Elliott, in 2004. As Gutierrez would do eight years later, Elliott guided Smarty Jones to scintillating victories in both the Derby and the Preakness but could not close the deal in the Belmont.
At the time, Elliott was a journeyman rider from Philadelphia. Since his spring with Smarty, Elliott has returned to being a journeyman rider from Philadelphia. He’s a respectable 57th nationally in purse money this year and has made a comfortable living over the course of his career. But he hasn’t come close to appearing in another Triple Crown race.
The year after Elliott had his moment, it was Jeremy Rose’s turn. He rode Afleet Alex to a third-place finish in the Derby, then won the Preakness and Belmont is sensational style – somehow helping keep his colt on its feet after a near-disastrous stumble heading into the Preakness stretch. Rose won an ESPY and a lot of other national acclaim for that ride.
The Maryland resident has since ridden in the Preakness several times, but like Elliott he remains a niche rider on the mid-Atlantic. Rose hasn’t ridden in the Derby or Belmont since Afleet Alex. He’s 51st nationally in earnings.
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For his part, Gutierrez seems to understand the nature of his business. As incredible as those two minutes were beneath the Twin Spires, they’re still just two minutes – not a complete body of work.
“You win one race,” he said, “that really don’t make you at all.”
Last year, that one race made Gutierrez a national curiosity. Then when he made it two remarkable races by backing up the Derby win in the Preakness, it made him a national sensation.
Dealing with that was a bit overwhelming for a quiet native of Mexico with an adequate handle on the English language but no handle on American media hype. Gutierrez simply went off-radar for much of the frenzied three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont, then re-emerged in New York as the center of attention.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “It’s something I’ll remember the rest of my life. The magnitude of the moment is different. The adrenaline. The history.”
And then it all fell apart. The day before the Belmont, when I’ll Have Another was supposed to make his run at ending the 34-year Triple Crown drought, the colt was stunningly scratched due to tendinitis and then abruptly retired from racing.
The next afternoon, racing tried to put a smiley face on a suddenly bleak Belmont. They brought I’ll Have Another to the winner’s circle, and Gutierrez got on the horse’s back one more time – not in jockey silks, but in dress clothes. Everyone took pictures as the young jockey blinked away tears.
“One day you have everything,” he said, “and the next day it’s gone.”
And when a moment that sublime is gone, it may never come back. A year removed from his unlikely star turn, Mario Gutierrez is learning that hard lesson.
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