– Now, he's the burgeoning star with a sly smile on his face and steady answer to every question, even as the weight of racing history should be pressing upon him.

But when Glen Todd first met Mario Gutierrez six years ago, the owner and jockey communicated through "a sort of sign language and pointing."

"He was shy, in a totally new place, and very embarrassed about not speaking English," said Todd, the top owner of thoroughbred horses in Western Canada. "And he was very tough on himself. When he lost, he always blamed himself. It was never the horse's fault, or bad luck."




But Todd, in the racing game for 40 years, knew genius when he saw it. He signed Gutierrez, who at 25 has a chance to lead I'll Have Anotherto a Triple Crown in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, to a first call agreement in 2007 and the rider won racing titles at Hastings, a small track in Vancouver, the next two years.

"He's a natural," Todd said. "To say he's any better today than he was when he arrived, that's just not true. He's always been this good. He was just in the wrong spot."

Thanks to the urging of Todd and his trainer, Troy Taylor, Gutierrez made the move from Vancouver to Southern California in 2011. He struggled to find regular mounts, but did happen to impress owner Paul Reddam. And Reddam happened to be ready to try a new rider, on a horse who'd only cost $35,000 but was emerging as a possible star.

So Gutierrez went to gallop I'll Have Another one morning, to see if the two could mesh.

"He called me right after, and he knew exactly how good this horse was," Todd said. "So good, he thought he'd never ride him."

Now, Gutierrez and I'll Have Another are on the cusp of achieving one of the most difficult feats in sports, for the first time in 34 years.

In the hands

Gutierrez grew up in a small farming community of about 7,000 in the Eastern Mexico state of Veracruz. The farm where his father worked got involved with racing quarter horses, and a young Mario yearned to be a jockey like his father. He ended up riding at age 14, but graduated high school before heading off to Mexico City to race on a mile track. Noticed there by a trainer from Hastings, he accepted an invitation to try the move to Canada.

Todd began watching the fearless jockey early on. At a mere five furlongs, the track is known for jostling among riders. Gutierrez navigated his way through with feel.

"He's very, very smart," Todd said. "And he knows the horses. But it's his hands. He has hands like Bill Shoemaker."

Shoemaker won nine Triple Crown races.

After Gutierrez's contract with Todd gave the former some financial stability, the latter took an unusual step to protect his investment and help a young man he'd come to admire.

"I really thought he was meeting a lot of friends I didn't think he should have," Todd said. "A lot of them liked him because he had a lot of money and they didn't have any money. So I brought him in."

Gutierrez moved in with Todd and Taylor, the trainer. By now he was beginning to learn English — he did so, in part, by watching movies and television — and started telling his new housemates about his life growing up.

"I couldn't understand just how poor he was. I came from, I guess you'd say, the other side of the tracks," said Todd, who ran his family's business, Pacific Customs Brokers Ltd., until retiring three years ago. "It was hard to hear about him sleeping on a dirt floor, not having enough to eat on some days."

Todd helped Gutierrez manage his finances and stay focused on racing. Taylor, who first won a racing title at Hastings in 1967, watched the young jockey blossom on the track.

"He gets on a horse, and he can tell you right away where that horse is bad, where he's sore," Taylor said. "He knows. He is that good."