I'll Have Another's jockey Gutierrez adjusting well to the spotlight

awincze@herald-leader.comMay 14, 2012 

  • Preakness Stakes

    At Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore
    Saturday, May 18
    TV: NBC
    Possible starters (with Derby finish): Orb (1st), Mylute (5th), Oxbow (6th), Will Take Charge (8th), Itsmyluckyday (15th) and Goldencents (16th), plus Departing, Governor Charlie, Fear the Kitten and Bellarmine.
  • Preakness field

    Horse Jockey Trainer
    Bodemeister Smith Baffert
    Cozzetti Lezcano Romans
    Creative Cause Rosario Harrington
    Daddy Nose Best Leparoux Asmussen
    I'll Have Another Gutierrez O'Neill
    Optimizer Nakatani Lukas
    Pretension Santiago Grove
    Teeth of the Dog Bravo Matz
    Tiger Walk Desormeaux Correas
    Went the Day Well Velazquez Motion
    Zetterholm Alvarado Dutrow

Before the Kentucky Derby, Mario Gutierrez's job had enormous risk and responsibility, but it was singular in its demands.

On the morning of May 5, the 25-year-old with the brilliant smile was an upstart jockey tagged with piloting Santa Anita Derby winner I'll Have Another in the 138th Run for the Roses, his first-ever mount in a Triple Crown race.

Now that Gutierrez and his chestnut partner won the most illustrious of American classics, he has taken on a host of additional duties as Thoroughbred racing's "It" guy.

The designation flatters Gutierrez, and he's grateful for it, but he in no way wants it to conflict with the day job that got him in that position.

Winning the Kentucky Derby is often deemed a life-changing event. Since his victory, Gutierrez has been Exhibit A in that department: He's tossed out the opening pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game, fielded and granted numerous interviews and become an all-around darling in print, television and social media.

His unfailingly polite personality has made Gutierrez a perfect candidate to handle the spotlight thrust upon him. Still, the native of Mexico knows the most pressing date on his calendar is May 19 when he and I'll Have Another shoot for the second leg of the Triple Crown in the Preakness Stakes.

"It's a little tiring and I try not to say no to anybody," Gutierrez said during a national teleconference last week. "It's been a great experience so far and I'm just trying to enjoy it right now ... but we have another big race coming up so we'll come back to reality.

"It has absolutely changed my life, all these press conferences. Hopefully everyone will understand that racing is my career and I want to be focused for the next big race coming up because this isn't over yet. I don't want this to bother me to perform well in the Preakness."

Gutierrez is getting all the attention because he was unflappable on a day when many before him have crumbled.

Aside from the nerves that come with riding in a first Kentucky Derby, there is the matter of staying cool enough to make split-second calls needed to stay out of trouble in a 20-horse cavalry charge.

At every point of call in the Derby, Gutierrez guessed right. He kept I'll Have Another clear without traveling too wide out of post position No. 19. And with Bodemeister setting sizzling fractions on the lead, Gutierrez toed the perfect line of keeping his colt close enough to pounce without getting burned out in the process.

"For a guy as young as he is, he rode a pretty cool race. He's the only one who didn't chase me," said Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, trainer of Bodemeister. "The guys who chased, their horses fell apart. But he didn't take the bait. If he had chased me he would have emptied out."

Baffert knows what it's like to take a leap of faith on a young rider who proved his mettle on a major stage.

In 2010, after champion Lookin At Lucky finished sixth as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Baffert made the call to replace Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez with then-unheralded Martin Garcia for the Preakness.

Garcia, then also 25, was not fazed by the moment or his rivals, guiding Lookin At Lucky to a three-quarter-length victory en route to the colt's second divisional championship.

Like Garcia, Baffert says Gutierrez's youth may actually work in his favor as he is riding purely on instinct and isn't over-thinking his task at hand.

"You know what, he didn't realize it (the enormity of the Kentucky Derby)," Baffert said of Gutierrez. "Martin Garcia was the same way when he won the Preakness; they don't know. Then all of the sudden they start winning those and then it's like 'Oh (expletive).' Then they get nervous."

Gutierrez has been repeatedly reminded of his monumental feat and the enormity of what still lies ahead.

"The kid is a rock star," said Doug O'Neill, trainer of I'll Have Another. "He's enjoying every bit of it and not worried about it overwhelming him at all."

All the hype could distract Gutierrez in the coming days — which is why he is anxious to get back in the saddle instead of in front of the microphones.

He plans to arrive early this week at Pimlico to get acclimated, "but all the tracks are the same," Gutierrez said. "They have dirt and they are a circle. I'll gallop a few horses and just prepare like I did for the Kentucky Derby. Hopefully everything goes right."

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.

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