When Mario Gutierrez was growing up, he just wanted to be like his dad, who raised quarter horses and rode in match races at the bush tracks of Vera Cruz, Mexico.
Gutierrez realized that goal at age 14. On Saturday at Churchill Downs, he will fulfill a much more grandiose dream when he rides Santa Anita Derby winner I'll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby.
"I am a little bit nervous, and a lot excited," said the 25-year-old rider. "I can't wait to go to Kentucky. This is a goal in my life, and I am already there. There is only 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby from 30,000 foals, and I have one of the top ones. I am thankful. This is a dream come true to me."
Gutierrez rode quarter horses in Vera Cruz from age 14 to 17. The races usually featured two or three horses over a distance of about 300 yards, Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez left Vera Cruz to ride at Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City in 2005. At Hipodromo he served a nine-month apprenticeship and got his first experience riding Thoroughbreds. In 2006, Canadian trainer Terry Jordan, a former jockey agent, saw Gutierrez ride at Hipodromo and offered him a chance to ride at Hasting Race Course in Vancouver.
Gutierrez' talent showed from the start. In 2006 he was Hastings' leading apprentice rider at age 19. Gutierrez won the riding title the following year, and in 2008 he lost it on the last day of the meet.
Gutierrez continued to climb the racetrack hierarchy, beginning with trips to Golden Gate Fields in Northern California. In late 2011 he made his first trip to Santa Anita Park in Southern Cal.
In January 2012, trainer Doug O'Neill and owners Paul and Zillah Reddam needed someone to ride I'll Have Another in his three-year-old debut. Although he had finished second in the Best Pal Stakes in 2011, I'll Have Another was not considered one of the West's best three-year-olds, and thus was not going to draw one of the top jockeys.
"We were in the FrontRunner restaurant at Santa Anita, and Mario won a race and looked really good on the horse," O'Neill said. "Paul asked, `Who's that kid?' I told him I didn't know much about him other than that he had won a lot of races up at Hastings. Paul said, `Why don't you have him come over and work I'll Have Another, and if he gets along with him, why don't you use him.'"
Gutierrez went across town to O'Neill's base at Hollywood Park and got on I'll Have Another for a morning workout. Unaware he had Reddam's support, Gutierrez did not think he had any chance to ride the colt in a race.
I'll Have Another, with Gutierrez named to ride, was sent off at 43-1 odds in the Lewis Stakes on February 4. Fresh and full of run from the start, Gutierrez encouraged his mount to relax and then powered home to win by a convincing 2_ lengths in fast time.
Next came the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 and a matchup with Creative Cause, at the time the West's top-ranked three-year-old, ridden by the circuit's top jockey Joel Rosario. Again Gutierrez showed his penchant for getting his horse to relax and finish strongly. He dueled Creative Cause and Rosario the length of the stretch and won by a nose.
"He did a good job of getting I'll Have Another to drop the bridle and settle in a good spot," O'Neill said. "He never got impatient. We were really happy with the way he handled those races. Mario rides with a lot of confidence. He's a really good kid who can really ride."
Despite Gutierrez' inexperience, O'Neill is confident he can handle the Kentucky Derby.
Gutierrez has been watching replays of past Kentucky Derbies to prepare himself for Saturday. He is confident in his mount's abilities and extremely gracious toward Reddam and O'Neill for giving him the opportunity.
"I'll Have Another is like a very nice car. You shift the gears and he will push forward more," Gutierrez said. "I think he can do the distance. He is a really neat horse to ride. I am so thankful to Mr. Reddam and Doug O'Neill. They are super people."
Gutierrez' father Mario and mother Paulina live in El Higo, Vera Cruz. He also has two sisters and a younger brother.
"I come from a very small town, and I hope they will be able to watch the Kentucky Derby. I try everything I can to make that possible," Gutierrez said. "Even if my family can't see the race live, I know they will be pushing with their hearts.
"I think this horse is gonna do what he is supposed to do. He earned the right to be at the Derby. He has a good kick in the end and he likes to race. I know he's gonna give me 100 percent. I love what I do, and I try to help the horse as much as I can. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime."