BALTIMORE — It could all be up to Super Mario.
June 9, when Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another attempts to become the 12th horse in history and the first in 34 years to win racing's Triple Crown, the fate of the Belmont Stakes could rest in the hands of the previously unknown 25-year-old jockey.
Mario Gutierrez had never ridden in a Kentucky Derby before he guided I'll Have Another past Bodemeister in the stretch to win the 138th Run for the Roses.
Gutierrez had never ridden in the Preakness before he guided I'll Have Another past Bodemeister at the wire to win the second leg of the Triple Crown.
He has never ridden at Belmont Park, either.
"It will be a first time for me," said Gutierrez on Saturday after the Preakness. "It will be the first time going to New York, first time I'm going to be at the racetrack."
New experiences have not been a problem for the rider who until recently rode most of his races at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, British Columbia.
If Gutierrez was complimented for his cool ride in the Derby, he earned even more praise on Saturday at Pimlico. As the lone speed horse in the race, Bodemeister had his way in the lead, setting the pace. Instead of pushing the leader, as many thought might happen, Gutierrez chose to sit in fourth place, even though he had been pushed out wide.
"Mario Gutierrez had him in a really good spot," Bob Baffert, Bodemeister's trainer, said. "I was watching him the whole race. That kid was just sitting chilly on him. I was hoping he would chase us a little but he refuses to chase Bodemeister.
"The key is that's a really good horse and the kid rides him with confidence."
The Belmont is a far different race. The mile-and-a-half distance is rare and borderline ridiculous. It taxes a 3-year-old's stamina. It tests a jockey's poise and patience.
In 1998, Real Quiet came to New York after wins in Louisville and Baltimore, but some felt jockey Kent Desormeaux moved too quickly and the Baffert-trained entry was beaten by a nose at the finish by Victory Gallop.
"In that one day," said Desormeaux in 2008, "I learned how not to ride the Belmont."
In 2004, the popular Smarty Jones arrived in New York on the verge of the Triple Crown, but with jockey Stewart Elliott, who had never ridden in the Belmont Stakes. Birdstone caught and passed Smarty in the stretch, again causing the critics to claim Elliott moved too soon.
Go all the way back to 1979, the year after the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, won the Belmont. Spectacular Bid was thought to be a sure winner, the fourth horse of the 1970s to accomplish the feat, until he was passed and beaten by the lightly raced Coastal.
"Did Bid's young jockey, Ron Franklin, ride the horse badly?" asked Sports Illustrated's William Leggett in print. "Some of the jocks in the race and those watching on the sidelines asserted he had, criticizing him for moving Bid to the front too soon."
I'll Have Another employs a different running style. He is a fast closer. Without Bodemeister, however, this Belmont may be a race full of closers — Dullahan, Union Rags, etc. — with precious little speed.
Unflappable again, with a shy, almost child-like smile, Gutierrez appeared unconcerned Saturday. When Dennis O'Neill, the bloodstock agent and trainer Doug O'Neill's brother, talked about getting some advice from a former jockey about Belmont Park, Gutierrez listened intently.
"We were talking with Richard Migliore, who rode there, and he said it's so big, you don't know the rider's perspective," Dennis O'Neill said. "He mentioned walking the track. Mario might not like that, but he was talking about taking Mario out and walking around the track because you can get lost out there, it's so big."
Super Mario just grinned.
He hasn't gotten lost yet.