NEW YORK - NEW YORK — It was a three-and-a-half hour drive that may ultimately have changed the course of horse-racing history.
Canadian trainer Terry Jordan had no idea of it at the time, but when he decided on a business diversion from his annual winter vacation at his condo in Acapulco and drove to Mexico City for a couple of days, he was about to find the sport’s next big star.
The mission was to recruit a young, apprentice jockey willing to come north to Canada on a win-win arrangement — a better life for the jockey and greater success for the trainer.
The Mexican tracks, he had learned in the past, were a fertile ground for young, hungry riders looking for a break and his bustling stable at Vancouver’s Hasting’s Park could use the help.
From the moment Jordan saw the poise and balance Mario Gutierrez showed in the saddle that day at Hipodromo de Las Americas, he was certain he had his man.
“He just looked like he belonged up there,” said Jordan, then a top trainer at Hastings and now a regular at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack. “He rode with the stirrups very, very short and when you do that, you have to have good balance.
“He just looked like he would turn out to be something big.”
Six years later, the entire racing world is getting a taste of just how big.
As the rider of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I’ll Have Another, Gutierrez and his hoofed friend are a mile-and-a-half away from lasting fame should the chestnut colt owned by Windsor, Ont., native Paul Reddam prevail in the June 9 Belmont Stakes and become racing’s next Triple Crown winner.
The story is too rich to be believed, from the horse itself, a modest $35,000 U.S. purchase, to his thrilling stretch runs in each of the first two jewels, to the remarkable poise Gutierrez has shown in front of record crowds at both Churchill Downs and Pimlico Racecourse.
And if Jordan hadn’t made that trip, who knows if the prospect of a Crown would even exist, as anticipation for the Belmont begins to ratchet up here.
When the Canadian trainer happened upon the Mexican teen back in 2006, almost incredibly, Gutierrez had just two lifetime wins and couldn’t speak a word of English. Dealing first with an agent in Mexico City, Jordan escorted the youngster to the Canadian embassy and helped him get paper work in order to pave his way for the journey north.
“He offered me a job and said it was a better opportunity for me,” Gutierrez said this week on a conference call. “He said the purses were a lot better and horse racing is what I love to do. He helped me fix my paperwork for Vancouver.
“Even though I’m originally from Mexico (the racing community in Vancouver) have adopted me like I am a Canadian. They pointed me in the right direction.”
The talent Jordan saw immediately paid off for both. Because Gutierrez was an “apprentice” rider, he was given a five-pound break in the required weight he had to carry and quickly responded with a stack of wins. The riding talent was obvious as well and even though Jordan would soon leave for Toronto to expand his operation, there was no slowing down Gutierrez, who moved on to have more success with trainer Troy Taylor and owner Glen Todd.
For six years, he honed his craft at Hastings Park, a tight-turned track that is barely on the radar of big-time North American racing. He eventually learned to speak English by watching hundreds of hours of television and soaking up the culture around him.
“There aren’t a lot of Spanish speakers there, so it was hard,” Gutierrez said. “But I wanted to learn so bad. I watched 2,000 movies, and listened to music.”
While one Canadian gave the young jockey his first break, it was another who gave him his biggest one. With Hastings closed for the winter, Gutierrez had to work somewhere and found himself at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles this past January. Rides were rare in the competitive California jockey colony, but when Gutierrez had the good fortune to ride home a winner one day, he caught the eye of Reddam, who liked the poise of the youngster.
The millionaire owner and lifelong gambler asked his trainer Doug O’Neill to investigate and, after getting Gutierrez to work I’ll Have Another one morning, another recruiting mission was complete.
The young rider responded with a pair of wins, including the $1-million Santa Anita Derby and, despite some ridicule that it was foolhardy to take a nobody to the Triple Crown, it was on to Kentucky.
“They didn’t listen to those people and they stuck with me,” Gutierrez said of the faith Reddam and O’Neill maintained in him despite his inexperience and background. “I’m just thankful for the opportunity, happy I didn’t disappoint them.
“They’re on my side and they have given me a lot of confidence.”
If anything has stood out about his rides in both the Derby and Preakness, it has been his confidence that he belongs. Despite leaving from way out in Post 19 at Churchill Downs, Gutierrez negotiated a clean trip for I’ll Have Another, setting up the shot to wear down frontrunner Bodemeister in the stretch.
In Baltimore, it briefly looked as though the jockey was waiting too long to launch his bid as, once again, Bodemeister looked bound to steal the race on the front. This time, I’ll Have Another waited until the final few strides to make the front, but still got the job done and now finds himself one win away from riding home as the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
“When I watched the Preakness, I had tears coming down my face,” Jordan said. “I was just so proud of him.
“I didn’t even want my name mentioned surrounding him, it’s got nothing to do with me. I gave him the opportunity and he ran with it. He’s a very humble kid, a good person. He could win every race on the card and the next morning around the barn, he’d be the same little guy.
“I wish him every success in the world. He deserves it.”