ELMONT, NY — – 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."
Today, Gutierrez refers to Todd and Taylor as father figures. He calls two or three times a day, and spent time in Vancouver between the Triple Crown races. At the restaurant and off-track betting facility Todd owns, customers have started placing bets on "the Canadian kid."
"He's the most popular rider in three countries," Todd said.
'Just be Mario'
Despite being based at the same tracks as one of the country's best riding colonies, Reddam and I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill stuck with Gutierrez, who piloted the colt through a easy prep win in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and then close scores in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
At Belmont, he faces a huge, unfamiliar track.
"I don't think it will matter much," Todd said. "Thing with Mario is, he always has something left in his horse."
Gutierrez still takes English lessons, but has been affable and humble with the media and fans. He has acknowledged concerns about his lack of experience here, but said he relied on his long-time friends in Vancouver for advice.
"I told Mario to just be Mario," Todd said.
Said Taylor: "Yep, he'll be fine. He's just who he is, does what he does. He'll be fine."
Gutierrez even sees his experience at Hastings as beneficial because he learned to ride in dense traffic.
"Coming here to a big racetrack … you have a lot of space where you can move," he said. "You always have a second choice to make."
For O'Neill, Gutierrez has been the only choice. The chemistry needed to come this close to winning a Triple Crown — let along doing it — is hard to define. Gutierrez supplies the underdog in this tale, and the bravado of youth.
"He's so young, he doesn't know how hard this is supposed to be," said Bob Baffert, trainer of Bodemeister. He watched I'll Have Another beat his horse — and hall of fame jockey Mike Smith — in the Derby and Preakness. "To him, it's all just another race."
Gutierrez has acted that way all along.
"He just never changes," Todd said. "He's already so far from where he started."