Ask Mario Gutierrez what his favorite possession was growing up in Veracruz, Mexico, and his soft, accented voice becomes incredulous.
"Are you kidding me?" he asks. "I was just happy I had something to wear. To have a pair of shoes, that was awesome."
Possessions beyond the most basic human needs were considered extravagant luxuries at the farm where Mario and his three siblings lived with their parents, Mario Sr. and Paulina Gutierrez. Basic appliances – refrigerators and televisions – were beyond their reach.
"We used to have nothing," Gutierrez tells Yahoo! Sports. "Absolutely nothing."
Today he is intoxicatingly close to having absolutely everything a jockey desires. Win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday aboard I'll Have Another and Gutierrez will have unimagined wealth by his childhood standards. He will have fame that crosses over from niche sport to mainstream America. He will have the welcome-to-immortality achievement of winning a Triple Crown.
It has taken years of hard work, perseverance and willingness to move that made Gutierrez successful enough in thoroughbred racing that he was able to buy Paulina a house back home a few years ago. But it has taken less than 7 ½ minutes on the back of one special horse to make a previously obscure jockey the hottest star in his sport.
That's how long Gutierrez has ridden I'll Have Another in actual race time. There was 1 minute, 40.84 seconds on the colt's back in February, as the tandem won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. There was 1:47.88 in April, when they won the Santa Anita Derby. Then there was the life-altering 2:01.83 on May 5 in the Kentucky Derby. And there was the dramatic 1:55.94 ride May 19 to win the Preakness.
Four races as the rider of I'll Have Another. Four victories. Now one more for history.
"No, no," Mario protests, softly but firmly. "I can't think about that right now. I can't think about if he wins."
That reluctance to publicly daydream, even for a minute, is understandable. When you come from where Mario Gutierrez came from, this is beyond a wildest-dream scenario. This is pure fiction.
At age 6, Mario decided he wanted to become a jockey. He was following the family business.
"I was looking up to my dad," he says.
Mario Sr. had ridden quarter horses and later trained them. At 14, Mario began riding for him in match races. The family's economic reality made college out of the question, so after high school the family's oldest of two boys set out from his small town to massive Mexico City to ride.
In the early days at Hipodromo de las Americas, Mario was often homesick and overwhelmed. "I used to be a home boy," he says.
But he was determined to help create a better life for his family by riding winners, earning purses and sending some of the cash home. After some solid success in his first two years in Mexico City, fate intervened.
Thoroughbred owner Glenn Todd and trainer Troy Taylor made regular visits to Hipodromo del las Americas, and one day they laid eyes on 19-year-old Mario Gutierrez. They liked what they saw in him enough that they convinced him to leave his home country and shift his business all the way to Hastings Park in Vancouver, Canada.
"Thanks to Hastings," Mario says, "I had the opportunity to bring my family a better life."
Understand, though, that winning races at Hastings Park does not move the needle on the national scale. It is a small-time track with small-time purses and horses. So even though Gutierrez was making huge money by his standards, he was still far removed from the sport's biggest stages.
Six years into Mario's career at Hastings, Todd and Taylor decided to change their winter routine. Instead of taking horses to Golden Gate Fields in northern California, they opted instead to take a step up in class and go to Santa Anita in the Los Angeles area. And they brought Mario with them as their main rider.
It was there that I'll Have Another owner J. Paul Reddam watched Gutierrez ride. At that point, Reddam and the horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill, were plotting the 3-year-old campaign for their colt. There was optimism, but hardly any grand designs – I'll Have Another had won just one of his three career races and was coming off consecutive defeats under jockeys Joel Rosario and Julien Leparoux.
O'Neill was thinking conservatively and suggested a fairly routine allowance race. Reddam, who kept hearing raves about I'll Have Another's potential from O'Neill and his brother and assistant, Dennis, suggested bigger game. How about putting the colt in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, one of the early checkpoints on the Kentucky Derby road map?
O'Neill agreed, but cautioned that they wouldn't get a top-of-the-line rider in a stakes race for a long shot like I'll Have Another.
"How about Mario Gutierrez?" Reddam suggested.
O'Neill had Gutierrez work the horse one morning, and the match was made. Shortly thereafter, I'll Have Another won the Lewis Stakes at a whopping 43-1. It's not unusual after winning a big race for a lower-rung jockey to be dumped in favor of someone more established, but O'Neill and Reddam stuck with their no-named rider.
"This kid," said O'Neill, "can really ride."
Gutierrez repaid their loyalty by winning the Santa Anita Derby by a nose over Creative Cause. It would be the first of three straight stirring stretch runs – the second when I'll Have Another ran down Bodemeister in the Derby and the third when those two horses hooked up again in the Preakness.
In that race, Gutierrez showed an almost inhuman calm – biding his time until almost the last possible second before asking his colt to run. By then, Bodemeister had had everything his way – moderate fractions set him up to kick away with the race in the final furlongs. But there came I'll Have Another, reeling in the front-runner just before the wire to win.
"Mario Gutierrez had [I'll Have Another] in a really good spot," Bodemeister trainer Bob Baffert said after the Preakness. "I was watching him the whole race. The kid was just sitting chilly on him. I was hoping that he would chase us a little bit, but he refuses to chase Bodemeister. The key is that the kid really rides him right. He's a good horse, and that kid really rides him with a lot of confidence."
The confidence, Mario says, comes entirely from I'll Have Another.
"He's an unbelievable horse," Mario says. "He's awesome, he's an amazing horse, and he lets me do pretty much everything I want on him. He absolutely changed my life."
It's been a spellbinding 7 ½ minutes for I'll Have Another and Mario Gutierrez, spread out over the past four months. Now there are 2 ½ minutes to go to attain history.
Racing is not like other sports, where the combatants speak cautiously to the media – talking up their opponents and talking down their own chances. Perhaps that's because horses can't read bulletin board material.
Given that dynamic, many jockeys sitting on the verge of a Triple Crown have bragged boldly on their horses leading into the Belmont. In recent years, Kent Desormeaux did it with both Big Brown and Real Quiet. Stewart Elliott did it with Smarty Jones. Gary Stevens did it with Silver Charm.
They all lost.
Perhaps that's why Mario won't go there. He will not publicly predict victory. Will not declare I'll Have Another unbeatable come Saturday evening.
"Whatever happens, it will happen," he says. "I'll be happy as long as I do my best and try my hardest and the horse runs his race."
Or perhaps Mario Gutierrez won't go there because he's never been anywhere near a reality this dazzling before. After you've grown up with nothing, it can be hard to trust the world when it suddenly offers you everything.
But what has to seem like a fantasy can indeed come true Saturday. For an entire world of jockeys would love to put themselves in the shoes of a guy who grew up feeling lucky just to have anything on his feet.
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