LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As athletic contests go, the Kentucky Derby is one of the shortest.
It lasts for a second or so more than two minutes.
For the jockeys, intensive concentration is required to make the split-second decisions that provide the horse being ridden with its best chance.
So it is hardly a surprise that most trainers put experience – along with talent – at the top of their list of qualifications when they seek a jockey to ride a Derby contender.
Recent winners like John Velazquez, aboard Animal Kingdom last year, and Calvin Borel, a winner of three of the past six editions of the Run for the Roses, have earned their way to the top of the profession by years of devotion to perfecting their style of riding.
However, as Saturday’s race proved, there’s also a place for a talented rookie among the riding greats who usually dominate America’s greatest horse race.
That would be Mario Gutierrez, a 25-year-old native of Mexico who was riding in British Columbia this time last year.
The odds of Gutierrez landing in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle after the running of a Kentucky Derby would have approached infinity when he first began riding quarter horses in Vera Cruz at age 12. And they would not have been all that much lower when the youngster took the big step of moving his tack from Vancouver to southern California around the first of this year.
Working the backstretch in the mornings, Gutierrez galloped horses and worked horses for practically any trainer that asked and, before long, he was riding in the afternoon. And riding well. At least that’s what owner J. Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill thought as they watched Gutierrez pull up a winning mount at Santa Anita.
“Who is this kid?” Reddam asked O’Neill. “Maybe we ought to give him a shot.”
O’Neill contacted Gutierrez’s agent and had him work I’ll Have Another.
The horse and rider got along beautifully, and O’Neill made the recommendation that the call for the upcoming Lewis Memorial be given to the youngster. They galloped home at 43 to 1 and Gutierrez was solidly entrenched as I’ll Have Another’s pilot.
Then came the Santa Anita Derby and another stellar performance by horse and rider, as they took down Creative Cause. The rest is now history.
I’ll Have Another broke sharply from the 19th stall in the gate and Gutierrez smoothly angled him toward the rail in the run to the first turn, in a stalking position.
He began moving closer to the leaders down the backstretch and was easing into contention as they began the final turn. Gutierrez eased him to the outside rounding the bend to give his colt an open path to the wire.
From there to the finish it was just a question of whether Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another could catch the front-running Bodemeister. That inquiry was answered in the affirmative about 80 yards from the finish.
“Actually, I just hope he doesn’t get too big that we can’t get him to ride for us,” O’Neill cautioned.
“What happens is these jockeys get so popular and, all of a sudden, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, wait a second: Did you forget about us, Mario?’ ”
That’s not very likely as Mario and his colt will be ready to try for another two weeks hence.