ELMONT, N.Y. — Of all of Mario Gutierrez's artful moves over the past four weeks of the 2012 Triple Crown, perhaps the one that has served him best has been the simple shrug-and-smile.
When many people questioned how a virtually unknown jockey in his first Kentucky Derby could possibly get his mount home from post No. 19, Gutierrez, 25, responded by giving I'll Have Another a flawless ride on the first Saturday in May.
If the pressure of sudden expectations were getting to the soft-spoken jockey, it wasn't apparent in the confident way he guided his charge through one of the great stretch runs in Preakness Stakes history two weeks later.
Even after having done everything right so far, Gutierrez has some pointing to his inexperience as the weak link in I'll Have Another's bid to become the first Triple Crown champion in 34 years in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
"I think he could be the fly in the ointment," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas declared.
It'd be enough to irritate even the most secure person. But as has been his trademark, Gutierrez is again trying to absorb others' doubts and spin them into something positive.
Whether it was Ron Franklin inexplicably chasing a long shot aboard Spectacular Bid, Hall of Famer Chris McCarron lamenting his placement of Alysheba, or the perceived too-soon moves of Kent Desormeaux aboard Real Quiet and Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones, jockey error has been the most common excuse among the 11 horses since Affirmed triumphed in 1978 who came to the Belmont chasing a Triple Crown and failed.
A big part of winning the Belmont is having a rider who knows how to judge the track's poles over its unique 11/2-mile circumference and when to move during the marathon test. Because Gutierrez has never ridden on the track, more than one pundit has wondered whether he'll become the latest pilot to be swallowed up by "Big Sandy."
Instead of being rankled by those who question him, Gutierrez is taking the core message to heart. In an effort to gain experience over the track, Gutierrez will ride in five races here Friday, including the 11/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap over the main track.
"I can't change the way people are going to think and I can't change what they're going to say," Gutierrez said Tuesday after making a brief visit to Belmont before making a trip to the Empire State Building. "I take everything in a positive way. If they say something, then they say it for a reason, right? And that will make me more prepared.
"In the end, I'm just going to do my job. I'm committed to I'll Have Another, not all the expectations people have."
Just as there has been no shortage of chirping in Gutierrez's direction, there have been those ready with advice. Retired jockey Richard Migliore, a winner of more than 1,300 races at Belmont during his illustrious career, has offered to personally take the native of Mexico around the 12-furlong track.
Although Gutierrez has become an overnight sensation of sorts, veterans of the New York circuit warn that mastering Belmont Park takes more than a day.
"It's definitely very deceiving," said jockey John Velazquez, who won the 2007 Belmont Stakes aboard Rags to Riches and will guide Grade I winner Union Rags this Saturday. "You have to know where you are. You have to make decisions about what you're going to do and make them quickly, and that's the problem with the 11/2 miles here — whether you think you're in the right spot or if you should wait more. It's very tricky. But (Gutierrez) ... he's got a good head on him."
A contributing factor to Gutierrez's seeming unflappability is the conviction that he is on the best horse.
I'll Have Another has yet to show any signs that the Triple Crown quest has worn on him, with his morning gallops looking like timed workouts.
In order for any of his expected challengers to have a chance Saturday, they need to not only take leaps forward in form, but they must hope the son of Flower Alley regresses.
"No horse is unbeatable. Anything can happen," Gutierrez said of his mount. "But I have 100 percent confidence in him. He loves racing; he has a tremendous heart. He likes to be a winner; he likes to catch horses. That's where my confidence came from."