Jockey Mario Gutierrez (top

Jockey Mario Gutierrez (top

Kentucky Derby winning jockey returns to South Surrey

Kentucky Derby winner Mario Gutierrez returned to South Surrey – and Vancouver's Hastings Park Racecourse – to celebrate his big win.

On the afternoon of May 5, jockey Mario Gutierrez, riding Kentucky-bred horse I’ll Have Another – sire of Flower Alley, grandsire of Distorted Humor – roared down the final furlong of the Kentucky Derby, and passed Bodemeister to win by one-and-a-half lengths.

At that same moment – at Hastings Park Racecourse, 4,061 km away from Churchill Downs – Glen Todd, watching from a private room alongside 50 friends, roared as well.

In the 30 minutes that followed, Todd doesn’t remember hearing a thing.

“It was so loud. People cheering and hollering, clapping and high-fiving, hugging, kissing, it was incredible. We were so proud of him,” said Todd, a Peninsula resident and Canada’s top-earning horse-owner, whose connection to Gutierrez began six years ago at Hastings Park, when he spied a talented 19-year-old whom he worried might squander a rare gift.

• • •

Growing up in the small community of Veracruz, Mexico, Gutierrez, now 25, always had an interest in horse racing. As a teen, he’d raced in a number of small, local events, and upon graduating from high school in 2004, was discovered at a track in Mexico City by Terry Jordan, a Hastings Park trainer who was on vacation.

Jordan convinced Gutierrez to come to Vancouver, and soon after, the young Mexican rider was winning race after race on the East Vancouver track, making, as he recalls, “more money in one week than I made in half a season back in Mexico.”

Todd, who owns more than 50 racehorses through his North American Thoroughbred Horse Company and is perhaps best known in local sports circles for his involvement in the White Rock Renegades girls fastpitch program, soon noticed that the young wunderkid, flush with cash and confidence, was starting to be pulled in the wrong direction by suspect people down at the track.

That’s when he and veteran trainer Troy Taylor pulled Gutierrez into their stable, providing him guidance both on and off the track. Gutierrez even moved into Todd’s South Surrey home, where he lived for four years.

“He looked like he was maybe going to get off-track when he came here. He had a lot of friends in a hurry, when he started to win,” Todd said Monday, while sitting in a booth at the Douglas area’s horse-racing-themed Derby Bar and Grill, which he owns.

“We knew he had something, and we weren’t going to let him blow it, even if we sometimes had to kick him in the ass a little bit.”

Todd also admits his interest in Gutierrez as a jockey was not entirely altruistic.

“Well, he was the best rider there, by far. And I should have the best rider on my horses, right?” he laughed.

The arrangement worked out well, as the combination of Gutierrez’s skill, Taylor’s expertise and Todd’s horses resulted in hundreds of Hastings Park victories over the next few years.

“Several hundred,” Todd noted.

Gutierrez, who says he has a father-son relationship with Todd, left Hastings Park a year ago to race at the famed Santa Anita Park in Southern California, but still considers the Lower Mainland his second home. When he refers to Todd, he always calls him “pardner.”

And, as Gutierrez is quick to point out, he’s always been grateful for the guidance he received from Todd and Taylor.

After his win at Churchill Downs, Todd was one of the first people he called.

“When I first came here, I had some money, I was on my own, and I started thinking that I’d already made it,” he explained.  “But you always need someone to grab you, and teach you a little bit, and push you in the right direction. That happened for me with Glen. He saw something in me.”

• • •

Before the 11th race of the Kentucky Derby – the $2-million-purse main event – Gutierrez wasn’t nervous so much as he was in awe.

In awe of the lavish surroundings of Churchill Downs – the Derby is considered one of the most decadent, over-the-top sports events in North America. In awe of his fellow jockeys, most of whom were longtime veterans, and in awe, mostly, of the fact that he was here, in perhaps the most famous American race, just one year removed from winning races on a track in East Vancouver while living in the spare room at Todd’s house.

“It was a lot to take in, just to get the horse there, to be there. I was already happy, he said, adding that he’d only met I’ll Have Another four months earlier.

“He’s a good horse,” he said.

During the race, Gutierrez said he remained focused, only allowing himself to break concentration for a brief second after I’ll Have Another passed Bodemeister, who at four-to-one odds, had been the pre-race favourite, and led for most of the race.

“After I passed him, and I knew I was going to be the first to the finish line, it was quite a moment… a pretty great moment,” he said.

Todd, watching from miles away at Hastings Park, insists he was not nervous.

“I’m never nervous,” he said, when asked by a visitor Monday. “You know me better than that. I’m never nervous.

His nerves were also calmed because Todd, being the horse-racing veteran that he is, knows his protege has a special talent. He realized at the eighth poll – about a mile to the finish line – that Gutierrez, who was running between fifth and seventh place at the time, had a chance to win.

“Hands,” he said.

“It’s the hands. He can get the horse to do what he wants to do, without upsetting the horse, and not many people can do that.

“And he’s got ice in his veins… he doesn’t get nervous, doesn’t get rattled. Great riders who’ve been there before have panicked, and made a move too soon, but he waited, and waited and then when he had to, off he went.”

Then, came the loudest 30 minutes Todd never heard.

“After that, I was taking calls for the next six hours.”

• • •

After a week spent celebrating with friends and family in the Lower Mainland – highlighted by an appearance at Hastings Park that drew thousands – Gutierrez left Wednesday for Maryland, home of Pimlico Race Course and the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown, which will be staged Saturday.

To be sure, Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another will be among the betting favourites, no longer able to slide in under the radar as they did in Kentucky.

And  though no horse has won the Triple Crown in more than 30 years, Todd says – albeit quietly – that Gutierrez has a shot at it.

“He’s got a good chance. I get that feeling… like it’s made to be,” he said, lowering his voice to a near-whisper.

“But I don’t want to jinx it.”