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Mario Gutierrez has ridden thousands of horses in 11 years as a jockey. None impressed him as quickly as the unfamiliar chestnut colt that trainer Doug O’Neill invited him to work out this year at Hollywood Park in California.
“I did not know at the time that it was I’ll Have Another, but right afterwards I said, ‘Oh my God, this is an unbelievable horse,”’ Gutierrez said yesterday in an interview at the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan.
In the four months since that first ride, the 25-year-old jockey and the 3-year-old colt have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the first two legs of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. Gutierrez will be in the saddle on June 9 at the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York, when I’ll Have Another tries to become the 12th horse to complete the sport’s most prestigious accomplishment, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
I’ll Have Another is the favorite at 3-2 to win the 11- horse race, followed by Dullahan at 7-2 and Union Rags at 4-1, according to online oddsmaker Bovada.lv. Bodemeister, who finished second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, isn’t entered in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.
Gutierrez earned $202,500 for winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, 10 percent of the horse’s overall take, and will make an additional $60,000 should I’ll Have Another complete the Triple Crown sweep. In his career, the jockey’s purse earnings total over $12.7 million, according to the Daily Racing Forum.
Since Affirmed’s victory, which came a decade before Gutierrez was born, 11 horses have won the Triple Crown’s first two legs before losing at Belmont Park. Gutierrez said it takes a very specific type of horse to have success in the longest race in the series.
“It’s such a difficult race, that’s why nobody has done it for 34 years,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t see a reason why not us. I believe so much in this horse, it has so much potential.”
The jockey credits his success atop I’ll Have Another to the horse fulfilling that potential and what he calls an indescribable connection he said he feels with many of his mounts.
“I can communicate with them,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of people may think I’m crazy saying that, but I just feel a connection with the horses.”
This year’s racing season has been a series of firsts for Gutierrez, who grew up racing in Veracruz, Mexico, before moving to Western Canada when he was 19. He had never raced at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, before preparing to ride I’ll Have Another there at the Kentucky Derby last month; had never ridden at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore prior to the week of the Preakness; and is yet to lead a horse onto the track at Belmont Park.
O’Neill said that Gutierrez will have a number of mounts at the track leading up to Saturday’s race, including the 1 1/2- mile Brooklyn Handicap on June 8.
“The race starts at the spot the Belmont does, and I think it will be a great help to Mario to get that under his belt,” O’Neill told reporters on June 2 following the horse’s first workout after arriving in Elmont.
In the weeks after winning the Kentucky Derby, Gutierrez threw out the first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game, attended a Los Angeles Lakers basketball playoff game and conducted dozens of interviews in English and Spanish. After winning the Preakness, he travelled back to his “second home” in Canada for a relaxing week with friends away from the spotlight.
“I’m always going to be a Mexican, there’s no doubt about it in my heart,” Gutierrez said in his first formal event since landing in New York on June 4. “Vancouver will always be my second home. Thanks to them I finally got the opportunity to give my family a better life, a better living.”
At both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, I’ll Have Another waited until after the final turn to take the lead. Gutierrez said the strategy won’t change this weekend in the longest leg.
“I’ll Have Another will race his race,” the jockey said. “We’re going to go out there and we’re going to fight for it.”
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