Mario Gutierrez, a little-known jockey before the 2012 Kentucky Derby, has drawn numerous rave reviews for his efforts in guiding I'll Have Another to within one victory of the first Triple Crown in 34 years. But the feedback was not all positive from retired Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey.
Bailey, one of the premier riders of all time before he accepted his last mount in 2006, told America's Best Racing that Gutierrez was guilty of misjudging the pace in the Preakness Stakes and that I'll Have Another "bailed him out."
Bailey, who will analyze Saturday's Belmont Stakes for NBC, joined the chorus in praising Gutierrez, 25, for his handiwork in the Kentucky Derby, when his mount reeled in Bodemeister to win by 1 1/2 lengths and become the first horse to win the Run for the Roses from post position 19.
"He was farther back than I would have been. I think he gave Bodemeister too big of an edge with the (modest) pace. He still won, so I guess he rode a good enough race. But I still think the horse came to his rescue with the amazing finish he had. I think he was just too cool about it."
Bailey also expressed concern about Gutierrez's handling of turns, not only aboard I'll Have Another but with other mounts as well.
"He lets his horses spread the turns. He doesn't ride real tight," he said. "There is a lot of separation between him and the horses he is going around. Those are valuable lengths."
Gutierrez, born in Veracruz, Mexico, was the leading apprentice rider at Hastings Race Course in Vancouver, British Columbia in 2006. He topped the rider standings there each of the next two years before finishing second in 2009. He initially struggled to establish himself on the rugged West Coast circuit before J. Paul Reddam, owner of I'll Have Another, saw him win a race one day and urged trainer Doug O'Neill to allow him to work the horse.
So far, it has been a match made in heaven.
Gutierrez and I'll Have Another have won all four of their starts together, beginning with the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 4 at Santa Anita Park when they pulled a 43-to-1 upset in I'll Have Another's first start in five months. The youngster collected his first Grade 1 victory in the Santa Anita Derby, when he rode furiously to outduel Creative Cause by a nose. He joined Stewart Elliott (2004, Smarty Jones) as the only riders since Ron Franklin scored with Spectacular Bid in 1979 to win the Kentucky Derby in their first attempt.
Bailey praised Gutierrez's performance in the Run for the Roses as "impeccable." He also noted that the scorching fractions provided a perfect set-up and made it far easier to maneuver.
"A faster pace strings out the field," the winner of six Triple Crown races said. "It's very similar to traffic on an expressway going 70 (mph). It's much easier to maneuver through traffic when cars are spread out going faster than it is during rush hour when they're all jammed up. There is no way to navigate then."
Bailey took the 1 «-mile Belmont Stakes twice, with Hansel (1991) and Empire Maker (2003). He calls it a "feel" race and believes that Gutierrez, who has never been to New York before his scheduled arrival Monday night, will be at a significant disadvantage because of his lack of experience at the massive Belmont Park oval.
"It's a little foreign to all riders," he said, "but it's much more foreign to riders who don't ride Belmont Park on a regular basis."
Eleven U.S. Triple Crown bids have fallen short since Affirmed became the 11th Thoroughbred to complete the elusive sweep. He attributes three of those to "pilot error."
Although the connections of Spectacular Bid claimed he failed because he was hurt when he stepped on a safety pin, Bailey said Franklin asked his Bid for his winning move "far too soon."
He faulted Kent Desormeaux for Real Quiet's nose miss against Victory Gallop in 1998. "Kent moved at the five-eighths pole and I was wondering at the time where the heck he was going," Bailey said. "Sure enough, the horse kind of eased himself when they made the lead and they got caught at the wire."
Bailey appeared to play a role in Smarty Jones' demise in 2004 when he used Eddington to apply early pressure, forcing Stewart Elliott to ask for speed before he wanted to, since Rock Hard Ten also was on the attack.
"Even with mid-race pressure, I think Stewart could have won if he adjusted," Bailey said. "But he didn't adjust."
O'Neill said he will review tape of various editions of the Belmont Stakes with Gutierrez. He expressed confidence the former Hastings Park star will respond to the biggest stage imaginable.
"Mario is a confident kid, a good rider," O'Neill said. "He'll figure it out."