Racing

Mario Gutierrez is Not Your Average Jockey

The pilot for undefeated Derby winner Nyquist has come a long way, again and again

©Coady Photography

Moments after reaching the pinnacle of his profession for the second time in as many tries, jockey Mario Gutierrez sat atop the colt named Nyquist as mounted reporter Donna Barton Brothers hustled over for an interview. Amid the collective roar of 167,000 bourbon-drenched fans lavishing wild praise on the Kentucky Derby champion, and millions more watching at home, the grandest stage in the sport was his alone.

Gutierrez had just become the first jockey in 118 years to win the Kentucky Derby in his first two attempts, delivering a patiently brilliant ride on the undefeated colt despite wearing the bullseye. If there was ever a time to boast, revel or disclose immediate plans for a Disney vacation, this was it.

“I have to thank my wife, more than anything,” a winded and emotional Gutierrez offered. “I wasn’t doing that great and she never stopped believing in me, and she made me realize why I love riding so much and then Nyquist entered into my life and it’s just unbelievable.”

Unbelievable indeed, how in that moment the man who just pulled off a nearly unprecedented feat, earning a healthy paycheck in the process, could be so calm, genuine and thoughtful. Just as it takes a special type of thoroughbred to compete at racing’s top level, it takes equally unique personalities to ride them. In this brutal game there are no guarantees. You only earn money when your horse hits the board, and it seems like the only time people pay attention to the jockey is when they make a mistake, or fall. Their livelihood, and wellbeing, is dependent upon the whims of a 1200 lb. locomotive. When they lose, it’s the jockey’s fault. When they win, it’s just a great horse.

Gutierrez was all smiles after winning his 2nd Kentucky Derby with Nyquist, who he has ridden in all 8 career starts. ©Coady Photography
A grateful Gutierrez after winning his 2nd Kentucky Derby with Nyquist, who he has ridden in all 8 career starts. ©Coady Photography/Churchill Downs

 

Just as there’s little room for error out on the track, there’s even less room for fear, or doubt. Confidence is king, boldness is cash. So it’s no surprise this ultra-competitive, exceedingly risky vocation is filled with brash, “type-A” showmen.

However, this 29-year-old native of Mexico exhibits a much more muted brand of self-confidence than many of his peers, perhaps due in part to his rather atypical path to success. Though he’s only been riding in North America for 10 years, Gutierrez has already experienced both the pinnacle and pitfall of his profession.

His first big break came a decade ago. A visiting horse trainer down from Canada spotted him riding at a Mexico City racetrack and convinced him to move up to Vancouver and start working some of his horses in the mornings at humble Hastings Racecourse. If he proved his worth, perhaps he could eventually work his way up to riding a few in the afternoon, seven days a week for a few hundred here, a few hundred there. The only guarantee was the opportunity to work. For the kid from Veracruz, Mexico, who started riding quarter horses as young teenager in the hopes of earning enough money to buy a pair of shoes or something to eat, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

Gutierrez stepped off the plane in Vancouver in 2006 carrying only a trash bag of belongings. There to pick him up was a woman named Rebecca. It was the first person he met in his new home. Nine years later they would be married. Later this year, they are expecting their first child.

In this line of work there are no short cuts to the top. You have to put in the time, earn respect, build your name and try not to get killed. If you’re good enough, and perhaps a little lucky, maybe you’ll get the chance to sit on some good horses. All it takes oftentimes is one big breakthrough to set yourself up for the chance at a nice career.

Gutierrez’s breakthrough, his first one, came in late 2011, while working mornings and hustling rides at Santa Anita Park. Horse owner Paul Reddam had no idea who this kid was, but he liked what he saw—his connection to the horse, his effort, his demeanor.

Reddam arranged for Gutierrez to swing by the barn of his go-to trainer, Doug O’Neill, and work some of their horses. One such horse was a low-dollar but exceedingly improving colt named I’ll Have Another. The two formed an immediate bond and, as it turned out, this colt could run. Together they won the Santa Anita Derby, the first Grade I win for Gutierrez, securing a spot in the 2012 Kentucky Derby. The kid from the Mexico slum was on his way to the grandest theater in the sport.

With his no-name jockey, light race record and seemingly unfavorable post position on the extreme outside, I’ll Have Another was largely overlooked by bettors and analysts. Yet, no one could ignore the streaking chestnut and the kid in the white and purple silks flying down the stretch, past talented pacesetter Bodemesiter and across the wire a length in front of the pack.

In his first attempt at the Kentucky Derby, his first time at Churchill Downs, Gutierrez put in a brilliant ride and pulled the impossible.

 

Two weeks later at the Preakness, the previously obscure duo debunked all doubt they were a fluke. Once again Gutierrez put his intangibles on full display, settling the colt into a clear stalking position and perfectly timing his run as they reeled in Bodemeister once more, this time by a single bob of the head.

Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another had notched another classic win and were 2/3 of the way to the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

As soon as the spectacle was over, Gutierrez put his head in his hands and cried. He was sad for the horse, who he felt deserved to be remembered forever.

The I’ll Have Another camp would enjoy two more weeks bathing in the spotlight before the bulb abruptly burned out. Just one day before the Belmont Stakes it was announced the colt had sustained a tendon injury while training and would not only be scratched from the Belmont, but retired from racing completely.

The next day Gutierrez climbed aboard his champion for the last time in the Belmont Park winner’s circle. They solemnly paraded ahead of the field they likely would have bested, giving fans one last chance to see this superstar thoroughbred in the flesh.

As soon as the spectacle was over, Gutierrez put his head in his hands and cried. He wasn’t upset over the lost purse money, or the opportunity to have his name etched alongside some of the all time great riders. He was sad for the horse, who he felt deserved to be remembered forever.

 

As it does in the horse world, the show goes on. The sun rises the next morning and it’s right back to work.

 

This is the part where horsemen line up to get Gutierrez on their horses. The point in the story where his career takes off, and he never looks back.

Yet, the breakthrough never came.

After piloting over $5.3 million in purse money in 2012, Gutierrez regressed to $3.7 million in 2013, and back into obscurity. The slump carried over to 2014 where Gutierrez barely cracked the top 100 in jockey earnings in North America. How could it be? The kid could clearly ride and proved he could rise to the challenge when the stakes were highest. He was easy to work with, skilled in the saddle and ice in the clutch.

Perhaps it was because Gutierrez retreated to the comfort of his adopted family at Hastings instead of taking his tack and burgeoning reputation down the coast to the opportunity rich Southern California circuit. Or, maybe it was a lingering doubt he allowed into his mind that maybe this was just a fluke. An intelligent, thoughtful person, it seemed Gutierrez was his own worst enemy; unable to tune out the critics and move past his doubts.

 

Which brings us to last weekend’s post-Derby interview and the acknowledgement that his wife Rebecca helped him regain his footing, confidence and career.

After they married early in 2015, Gutierrez was determined to get his groove back. He returned to Santa Anita, much to the delight of Reddam and O’Neill, who put him on a talent oozing, precocious young colt named Nyquist. Gutierrez knew immediately this horse was something special. This was it.

Nyquist won at first asking that summer with Gutierrez aboard. Then, they went out and won the next three. Late in the fall they brought their undefeated record to Keeneland to take on the best 2-year-olds in the country in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Back on the big stage, back in the game.

For the first time in his young career Nyquist broke poorly, colliding with the horse to his inside. Unable to take his customary forwardly placed stalking position, Gutierrez had to unflinchingly improvise a plan B. Confident his colt had plenty of run underneath, they steadily moved up on the outside before finding a running lane at the top of the stretch, kicking away from the field and into the winner’s circle yet again.

 

It was the first career Breeders’ Cup victory for Gutierrez, who was once again thrusted from obscurity and squarely into the Kentucky Derby picture with the prohibitive horse to beat.

Speaking to the Toronto Sun last month, Gutierrez neatly summed up his connection with Nyquist:

“There is an emotion, an energy—it’s love.”

 

 

Several minutes after his post-Derby interview, Gutierrez calmly strolled into the packed Kentucky Derby press conference and took his seat alongside the rest of Team Nyquist. Asked about dealing with the pre-race pressure, the affable O’Neill spoke first and immediately turned his attention to the young man seated to his right.

“How does he handle that pressure? He’s got ice in his veins. He’s the guy you want at the free throw line at the end of the game,” O’Neill said.

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Gutierrez again responded with deflection.

“There’s a lot of pressure [in the Derby],” he said softly. “But I get the confidence from Nyquist. I trust him and I believe he trusts me as well.”

Discussing his professional maturation, the jockey cited recent improvements in his fitness and diet, as well as seeking help in guiding his mental approach through his Kentucky Derby bookended slump.

“I do believe I have matured as a rider and I’m doing things I didn’t do four years ago,” Gutierrez continued. “My wife encouraged me to get a sports psychologist. At the beginning I was a little embarrassed to tell people I was talking to sports psychologist, but now I’m very proud.

“At the end of the day, [Nyquist] is the most important thing and I have to focus on him and be 100% ready,” he said.

“I see Mario, he’s just so confident,” O’Neill added. “He’s extremely confident and not cocky. He wants to earn everything and puts a lot of effort into being prepared for every race and I think it shows.”

Boy, does it ever.

 

In two weeks, Mario Gutierrez will return to Pimlico Racetrack for the first time since his 2012 triumph with I’ll Have Another. All eyes will be on the exquisite and unblemished Nyquist as racing fans dare to dream of an inconceivable back-to-back Triple Crown. For many, this sport is all about the animal. Blinded by the beauty of this finely tuned athlete in his continued quest for perfection, they will hardly notice the man calmly crouched in the irons. And that is exactly how Mario Gutierrez wants it.