On his road to a potential Triple Crown, Mario Gutierrez got the hard part out of the way early – winning the first one.
Now, a few weeks removed from his second Kentucky Derby win – in as many attempts – the former South Surrey jockey and his horse, Nyquist, will take aim at the second leg of horse-racing’s vaunted triple play when the starter’s pistol fires at the Preakness Stakes Saturday afternoon at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md.
And despite being one-third of the way to horse-racing history – joining a slew of legendary triple-crown champions, including last year’s winners, American Pharaoh and jockey Victor Espinoza – Gutierrez insists he isn’t yet feeling the weight of history.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
“It’s a lot of pressure off my shoulders now,” said the 29-year-old native of Veracruz, Mexico, who spend six years living in South Surrey while racings at Hastings Park, before moving to the United States.
“The first one is out of the way. If you want to win the Triple Crown, you have to win Kentucky first.
“It’s huge for us to come out of the Kentucky Derby as winners, and now going into Baltimore, we’re pretty confident.”
Looking back on the Kentucky Derby – which Gutierrez won by one-and-a-quarter lengths – the former Peninsula resident said the race played out much as he and his team, which includes trainer Doug O’Neill and horse-owner J. Paul Reddam, expected, even if it was a slightly quicker pace at times.
“You get an idea, a picture in your head, about how you think the race is going to go, and I think it ended up going pretty much that way,” the jockey told Peace Arch News.
“It was a very fast race. We knew a few horses were going to go ahead (quickly), but you don’t want to go too hard early, especially in a long race. The race played out a little fast, so we took it from there and adjusted a little bit, and it worked out.”
Taking a run at the Triple Crown is nothing new for Gutierrez, who won the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes aboard I’ll Have Another, but was unable to complete the Triple Crown attempt when the horse was scratched due to injury before the third and final race, the Belmont Stakes, which is set for June 11.
In the four years since, Gutierrez – who lives in California and races out of Santa Anita Park in Arcadia – has continued to collect victories at tracks across the country, but though he has come close with a few different horses, he had not qualified for the Kentucky Derby.
Gutierrez never allowed himself to get frustrated, however.
“You just keep working every day to get there, but I don’t think I was disappointed or frustrated,” he said. “You have to be patient in horse racing. A lot of different things have to go your way. You have to get the right horse, you have to get enough points, you have to keep your horse injury-free. You have to be patient – that’s the key.
“The way I look at horses, they give so much to us as riders, there’s just no way you can look at a horse and be upset, like ‘Oh no, this horse is no good.’”
Gutierrez’s current horse, Nyquist – named after Detroit Red Wings’ star Gustav Nyquist – has been the class of the horse-racing world for much of the spring, and with Gutierrez aboard, has won each of his eight races.
“I have similar feelings for Nyquist as I did for I’ll Have Another, and probably even stronger feelings because I’ve had the opportunity to ride Nyquist since he was a baby, and I only rode I’ll Have Another four times,” Gutierrez explained. “To watch him develop has been amazing.”
During his 2012 run with I’ll Have Another, Gutierrez – a relative unknown until his Kentucky victory – was thrust into the spotlight, during countless media interviews and appearing on late-night talk shows.
This time around, he’s more used to the attention, he said.
“It’s definitely easier now, and it’s a much better experience for me,” he said. “I’m enjoying things more this time. I have to enjoy it, because I’ve worked so hard to be in this position.”
He’s also doing his best to focus on this weekend’s race, rather than look too far ahead.
“Right now, we’re not even thinking about the Triple Crown. We can’t think about it. We can’t think about Belmont because we’re not even to Baltimore yet,” Gutierrez said.
“We still have to come out of Baltimore with a victory, and right now, all our focus and preparation is on the Preakness.
“We’re very confident that things will go well, and if they do, we’ll hopefully come out with a victory.”
Gutierrez was expecting to return to the Lower Mainland this summer; South Surrey horse owner Glenn Todd told PAN he hoped Gutierrez – his longtime friend – would race for him at Hastings Race Course on Canada Day.
“I love coming back to Hastings every chance I get. If July 1 matches up with my calendar, you can bet money that I’ll be there,” the jockey said. “Vancouver people, the people at Hastings, have always been so supportive – they’ve never forgot me, and I can’t wait to come back.”