Mario Gutierrez's fairytale journey that has carried him to within one victory of the Triple Crown almost never happened. The 25-year-old native of Veracruz, Mexico, who rode regularly at Hastings Park from 2006 to 2011, was so homesick for Vancouver, British Columbia, that he nearly left California despite having just won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby aboard I'll Have Another.
When Troy Taylor, one of Hastings' top trainers, brought a string down to Southern California last year, Gutierrez came along to ride first call. Though Taylor left a few horses behind, the trainer pulled up stakes in April and was heading back to his base for opening day at Hastings when the rider asked to join him.
Matt Jukich, Hastings intertrack television host who was on a busman's holiday Friday at Hollywood Park, picks up the story.
"He wanted to jump in the car with Troy," Jukich said. "It was (prominent Canadian owner and longtime Gutierrez supporter) Glen Todd who convinced Gutierrez to stay and stick it out.
"When he was riding there (Hastings), Mario was 'Glenn's rider,' the leading rider and was getting on the best horses," Jukich said. "It could have been easy for him to slide, but the fact he continued to work hard to make himself a better person is a great story."
On Mother's Day, May 13, Gutierrez headed back to Vancouver.
"He needed some time to clear his head," Jukich explained. "He had done so many interviews coast to coast after he won the Derby, he needed time to relax."
Though he didn't ride and was not paid an appearance fee by Hastings, Gutierrez was more than happy to join in the track's celebration. Word spread quickly about the jockey's appearance.
"People were lining up at 9 a.m. to get into the track," said Jukich, the son of Hastings track announcer Dan Jukich. "It was crazy there all day. The two major newspapers were there, two of the minor ones and at least a half dozen radio stations.
"Mario went to the backstretch early in the morning to say hello to horsemen and friends. When he got to the track, his first stop was the jocks' room. Everyone in the room wanted their picture taken with him.
"One of the riders who had a big rivalry going with Mario, won the stakes on Sunday of Derby weekend and the first thing he did was say he wanted to congratulate Mario. That took a lot of class.
"Mario just wanted to thank the fans, he didn't want it to be about him. I did an interview with him in the winner's circle and all he could talk about was how great everyone had treated him during his time at Hastings and how much he appreciated Vancouver and all the support the people had given him.
"After signing autographs and getting his picture taken for about 90 minutes outsider the winner's circle, he went up to Glen's box, signed some more cards, then went back downstairs later in the day and signed more memorabilia for about 45 minutes.
"As Glen Todd summed it up, 'he's done more for racing in the six days after the Derby than the rest of us have done in 20 years,'" relayed Jukich.
The stage is now set for a crack at the Triple Crown, which has eluded horse racing for 34 years, nine years before the rider was born. Judging by the way Gutierrez has handled the pressure of instant fame, New York will be just another rung of the ladder. One thing's for certain as I'll Have Another goes to the post in the Belmont Stakes, the hearts and minds of Vancouver's racing community will be right alongside Gutierrez in the starting gate.