AN EMOTIONAL RIDE BACK TO EMINENCE
Gutierrez confident he and Nyquist can win Kentucky Derby
Mario Gutierrez lies on the dark walnut floor of his new home, a short drive from the Santa Anita racetrack. His wife, Rebecca, five months pregnant with their first child, watches as his fitness coach presses one hand to his shoulder, one knee to his leg, using her full body weight to ply the muscles that keep his body coiled and taut.
Gutierrez, who four years ago made a dazzling run on I’ll Have Another for horse racing’s biggest prize, the Triple Crown, is in the spotlight again. He is the oddson favourite to win the Kentucky Derby May 7, riding Nyquist, an undefeated three-year-old owned and trained by J. Paul Reddam and Doug O’Neill, the same team behind I’ll Have Another.
This is a second chance for Gutierrez, whose 2012 run grabbed hearts and headlines, and breathed life into a sport that seemed hopelessly in decline. Gutierrez, with his bashful smile and rags-toriches story, appeared on Jimmy Fallon, an instant celebrity.
But the dream disappeared as quickly as it had come. After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, I’ll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont Stakes a day before the race because of a tendon injury. On race day, Gutierrez led I’ll Have Another in the ceremonial parade to the post. “When the other horses were in the gate, I wanted to grab him, and run on to the track. I knew he wanted to race, and he would have won.”
He held himself back. “I cried,” he says. “It was very devastating.”
Gutierrez lets one hand fall loosely over his heart as his coach eases her shoulder under his leg and presses. “There,” she says. “Look how far you’ve come.”
Gutierrez smiles, bright with delight. “I can’t believe it.”
The conditioning, the flexibility, the distance he can stretch is new. Since I’ll Have Another, Gutierrez has travelled through loss and doubt; he has earned his return to the winner’s circle, and a chance for redemption.
“I could tell the first day I worked Nyquist that he was special,” he says. “It’s almost like I had been driving cheap cars and all of a sudden I’m in a Lamborghini.”
The relationship between jockey and race horse is symbiotic: the jockey needs a champion; so does the horse. They share an intuitive, almost spiritual connection. With Nyquist, Gutierrez says, “there is an emotion, an energy — it’s love.” It is also luck. Following the disappointment at Belmont, Gutierrez retreated to Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver for the summer. His luck seemed to run out.
Gutierrez slid down the earnings ladder; he and his agent parted ways. Talk in the racing world was casual and cruel: I’ll Have Another was a lucky break. Mario’s success was a fluke. It was all about the horse.
“I was in a kind of slump,” Gutierrez admits. But behind the scenes, another kind of magic was happening: in Vancouver, he reconnected with Rebecca — the woman who had picked him and his garbage bag of belongings up at the airport when he first arrived from Mexico in 2006 — and love blossomed. They married.
On the racetrack, however, he couldn’t catch a break; “I was doubting myself a lot.”
He began to think more deeply about who he was, and where he had come from — the tiny town of El Higo, Mexico where his father, a farm hand, raced quarter horses in two-horse bush matches to earn money for the family. By 14, Mario was the rider pounding the bush tracks in races as wild as they were fierce.
“Even then, I wanted to know how far I could go with this racing thing. I wondered if I could do more.”
It was time to ask himself the same question. It was time to begin again.
Like an apprentice, Gutierrez started to show up at Santa Anita racetrack at dawn, offering to work horses for different owners.
“People were laughing at me, and making jokes, but I wanted to show I was still hungry,” he says as he eases back on the mat.
Rebecca suggested consulting a sports psychologist. “I didn’t even know what that was,” laughs Gutierrez. After one session, he booked 10 more.
Gutierrez began to see himself differently — in racing, it’s the horse who has a trainer, a coach, a special diet — why not the rider? He intensified his training, worked on his “mental game.” And he started to win again, rocketing up the jockey rankings from 100th in 2014, to top 10 this year.
Gutierrez rode relentlessly, took every mount he could. “I got to know the babies, the two-year olds. And that’s how I met Nyquist.
“Right away, I knew. I told Rebecca: This is the one. His presence is very, very powerful. With Nyquist, it was like he was born to do this, born to race.”
Gutierrez’s intuition was right: With Gutierrez, Nyquist has run seven races and won them all.
He snagged the Eclipse award for champion two-year-old, and trounced favourite Mohaymen in the hotly contested Florida Derby to secure his place for Kentucky.
Some question whether Nyquist is capable of a Triple Crown conquest, whether he will be victorious in longer distances — the 1.25-mile Kentucky Derby, and the 1.5-mile Belmont Stakes.
Gutierrez, who says he was happy when American Pharoah broke the Triple Crown drought last year, smiles mysteriously. “I know he can do it.”
There is an ease, a confidence as Gutierrez stands and folds up his mat.
“When I am in the gate, I have about 45 seconds before the race starts, and I become very, very calm. It’s only me and the horse.”
Gutierrez is silent now. Calm. In the living room, boxes of furniture are yet to be unpacked.
The silver Preakness cup rests, unpolished in an alcove. Sun filters through the arched Spanish-style windows; just outside is green lawn, the world and a wide open gate.