For a jockey, conventional wisdom is winning the Kentucky Derby changes your life and turbo-charges your career.
In 2012, Mario Gutierrez, then a baby-faced 24-year-old, won the Run for the Roses aboard I’ll Have Another in his first Derby ride.
Yet, had we looked in on the jockey from Veracruz, Mexico, in 2014, we’d have seen scant evidence of a career taking off.
For the entire calendar year of 2014, Gutierrez won a meager 50 races. To put that in perspective, that year’s North America earnings leader, Javier Castellano, rode 342 winners.
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With his career listing, Gutierrez listened to the advice of his new wife, Rebecca, and made some changes.
The jockey hired a strength and conditioning coach and a nutritionist. A trainer now comes to his house and “stretches him out” twice a week.
“And my wife encouraged me to get a sports psychologist,” Gutierrez said. “At the beginning, I was a little embarrassed to tell people I was talking to a sports psychologist, but now I am very proud. Talking to him helps me. … I’m feeling great right now.”
On Saturday, back under the twin spires of Churchill Downs, Gutierrez showed the world just how great he’s feeling.
Turning in a flawless, pace-judging ride, the jockey guided unbeaten Nyquist to a 1 1/4 -length victory over the hard-charging Exaggerator before a crowd of 167,227 (second-largest in history) in the 142nd Kentucky Derby.
The victory made Gutierrez the 25th jockey to win multiple Kentucky Derbys. He’s now been victorious both times he’s ridden in America’s signature horse race.
Just as it was with I’ll Have Another in 2012, Gutierrez rode the Kentucky-bred Nyquist for trainer Doug O’Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam.
“How does he handle the pressure?” O’Neill asked of Gutierrez. “… This guy, he’s got ice in his veins. He’s the guy you want at the free-throw line at the end of the game.”
It is his connection with Reddam and O’Neill that allowed Gutierrez to get his riding mojo back in 2015. Boosted by a series of talented horses out of Reddam’s stable, Gutierrez bounced back last season with 104 wins. He moved from 100th in jockey earnings in 2014 ($2.7 million) to 29th last year ($6.3 million).
One of the promising horses Reddam and O’Neill put him on in 2015 was Nyquist — who the jockey has been working out since the horse first came to a racetrack.
“So, I know him a lot and I trust him,” Gutierrez said of Nyquist. “And I believe he trusts me, too.”
In the biggest event in their sport, the connection between jockey and horse was on vivid display Saturday.
Nyquist broke alertly from the 13 post, but heading into the first turn, jockey and horse had a potentially race-determining decision to make. Starting from the outside 20 post position, the speedy Danzing Candy roared into the first turn.
Going with Danzing Candy could have meant a suicidal speed duel. Gutierrez was able to get Nyquist to rate, and dropped him in behind Danzing Candy. The latter set a blistering pace, running the first half-mile in 45.72 seconds.
Gutierrez said the clock that all jockeys need in their heads told him Danzing Candy was going too fast.
“All jockeys at this top level … we have a good sense of the pace,” he said. “We know when the race is slow; we know when it is fast. It’s my job to be in that level. I have to know how fast we are going.”
Afterward, analyzing the race for NBC, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey pointed to how Gutierrez positioned Nyquist into the first turn as where the race was won.
It was out of the final turn when Gutierrez asked Nyquist to go. A tiring Danzing Candy (faded to 15th) was easily picked off. Then Nyquist and Gutierrez had plenty in the tank to hold off the fast-charging Exaggerator.
Just like that, the jockey who won a Derby, had some lean times, but made the changes it took to persevere was again on top of the horse racing world.
Said a beaming Mario Gutierrez: “Pretty amazing, pretty amazing.”