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The magic hands of Mario Gutierrez

I'll Have Another with jockey Mario Gutierrez in the irons runs in the 137th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland, May 19, 2012.

MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

On the first Saturday in May, nearly 30C in the early evening, some big billowy clouds above, jockey Mario Gutierrez sat atop horse I'll Have Another in the No. 19 post at Churchill Downs in south Louisville.

It was not an ideal position to start the Kentucky Derby, far to the outside of the horses considered likely victors in the 138th running of the iconic U.S. horse race.

Gutierrez was a nobody, a young jockey from Mexico by way of Vancouver. And no horse had ever won the derby from the No. 19 post. It was a decided disadvantage: starting so far from the track rail meant more distance to cover. Yet Gutierrez was exactly where he felt most comfortable.

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Great jockeys have to be light, strong, fearless – riding 600-kilogram beasts at upward of 60 kilometres among a galloping crowd of competitors, amid churning swirls of dirt and dust. But a jockey's crucial talent, what those who know Gutierrez best call his "magic hands" – his feel for the reins, his intuitive sense of a horse – is something immeasurable. It is a kind-of reiki, the power of touch, the calming, the marshaling, the unleashing of energy. Horses feed off energy, sense fear, sense confidence, and thoroughbreds are especially nervous animals, particularly difficult to rein.

As the gates of the Kentucky Derby burst open, as a catapult of 20 horses shot forth – "annnnnnnd they're offfffff!" – Gutierrez easily guided I'll Have Another ahead of those directly around him. He made a diagonal beeline to settle in at the front of the middle of the pack, on the outside, out of trouble, running free and clear at the quarter-mile post behind a group of five horses. And, for much of the mile-and-a-quarter race, there Gutierrez remained, patient and comfortable.

Gutierrez is an amazing story on every front, coming from rural Mexico to six successful years in Vancouver. Then, last Christmas, through a chance encounter with an 85-year-old ex-marine who was recovering from colon cancer, Gutierrez got to ride I'll Have Another, an underestimated horse whose owner, J. Paul Reddam, grew up in Canada, was a philosophy professor before he made a turn into high-interest lending and horse racing.

But the Gutierrez story is about more than long-shot chance, tall tales, and unlikely characters. At Hastings Park in east Vancouver, Gutierrez honed his mastery of the elusive voodoo-like arts of his trade. He won more than 600 races and rode several thousand times. He perfected his craft, race by race. He learned horses. And while no one ever thought to consider the distance from Hastings to horse racing's summit, the Triple Crown – a trot to Mars would have been more realistic – Gutierrez forged an individual style and strategy at Hastings, a bullring of a track, five-eights of a mile, less than half that of the Kentucky Derby.

Run on the outside, stay out of trouble, stay patient.

It takes nerve to be patient.

Then, when the opening is spied, when you know your horse is ready, and able, strike.

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"He would give me goose bumps, how beautiful he would ride," says Sandra van Oostdam, a groom in the Vancouver stable for which Gutierrez raced. She translated for the 5-foot-4 jockey when he arrived in Vancouver without money at 19, and housed him for a few early months.

"He'd never believe me when I told him, 'There's greatness in you.' I could sense it. He's a very quiet rider and you could see how the horses settled for him. It's almost like the horse is waiting for Mario to say, 'Go.' And the horse goes."

On the backstretch of the Kentucky Derby, as the horses bounded toward and around the far turn, the prerace favourite, Union Rags, got in trouble. He'd already had a bad start and then, racing on the rail, Union Rags was bumped by another horse, slipped back, and fell out of contention.

I'll Have Another casually sped on. He had found a good spot, and was running near the rail, in seventh and in the clear.

At the final turn, Gutierrez led I'll Have Another round wide on the far outside, only one horse farther from the rail. At just 300 yards to the finish, and a long five-or-so lengths behind leader Bodemeister – another favourite, running toward a wire-to-wire victory – Gutierrez whipped his horse, several swats, fewer than most would make.

Go time.

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I'll Have Another burst ahead, snatched second place and, with 200 yards to the finish, Gutierrez coaxed another burst from the three-year-old chestnut colt. With 50 yards to go, Gutierrez was neck-and-neck with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, aboard Bodemeister, and then Gutierrez and I'll Have Another were gone, first across the line.

Two weeks later, at the Preakness in Baltimore, Gutierrez worked the same textbook. "I'll Have Another is in the clear, racing three-wide in fourth," an announcer calling the race said midway through the mile-and-3/16s gallop. Gutierrez made his move late, way too late it seemed to some. "I was concerned," trainer Doug O'Neill admitted after the race. But, again, Gutierrez and I'll Have Another chased down Smith and Bodemeister, winning by a nose at the finish.

Another Hastings special on one of horse racing's most-decorated stages.

Today, Gutierrez stands a mile-and-a-half from his sport's rarely grasped pinnacle, the Triple Crown. The final, longest and most-gruelling leg of the three races is to be run early Saturday evening at Belmont Park on Long Island outside New York City. The last Triple Crown winner was long ago, Affirmed in 1978, and 11 horses since have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness only to falter in the Belmont.

The Gutierrez fairy tale has its stains. O'Neill, I'll Have Another's trainer, has several rules violations in his past and in fact starts serving a new 45-day suspension in July after the Belmont. Horse racing, in general, continues its long fade from prominence: betting at the Kentucky Derby's home, Churchill Downs, is down by a third since 2007. During the same time, betting at Hastings has been nearly halved – and it's pushed the track toward the brink. The struggling track, described as bush league by Fox Sports, is fighting to stay in business.

Upward of 100,000 people are expected at Belmont Park to watch Gutierrez chase history – and a record 165,307 were on hand in Louisville in early May. At least 10,000 will crowd Hastings on Saturday, for what a track executive trumpets as the "biggest party Hastings has ever seen." A victory in the Belmont – Gutierrez and his underdog horse are for the first time favourites to win – would complete his near-impossible catapult into horse racing's pantheon.

And if Gutierrez is going to win it, it will likely come again from the outside. In the draw for Belmont post positions this week, I'll Have Another got No. 11, the second-widest from the rail of the dozen horses in the field.

************

On a weekday morning in late May, overcast and cool, dozens of vehicles filled the parking lot outside the backstretch at Hastings Park, the horse track that was cut from the West Coast wilderness on the Burrard Inlet in 1889. It was not yet 7 a.m., midweek, an off day, but the stables were active, and riders took some horses out for a light canter on the track muddied by overnight rain. Some dust mingled in the air, whiffs of manure floated.

At Hastings, people immediately saw a tremendous talent in Gutierrez from the moment he arrived in the spring of 2006, a young man who had a rare bond with horses, according to interviews with a half-dozen people closest to him in Vancouver.

Gutierrez married his touch with a savvy sense of where every jockey and horse is on the track, exercised over and over in the crowded confines of Hastings Park, an ability – like Wayne Gretzky on the ice of a hockey rink – to see a bigger picture unfold. He'd underpin his preternatural sense of space and time with study, an intense work ethic, diligent in-depth research of his competitors, the jockeys and horses, their tendencies, their talents.

Gutierrez mostly rode for Glen Todd, co-owner (with political insider Patrick Kinsella) of the largest stable in Western Canada. Todd become a father figure, a mentor, to Gutierrez, and housed him in his home in White Rock south of Vancouver for the past four years, taking him in when the rider was 21 and running with what Todd believed was a bad crowd, the track's dark side.

Todd, 65, also housed his stable's trainer, Troy Taylor, 80, who Gutierrez called grandpa. Some people around Hastings would cast the occasional askance glance at the oddball trio. Gutierrez recently joked it was a peculiar version of Two and a Half Men, the television show. The kid learned much of his English from TV, music and movies. "Glen is Charlie Sheen," quipped the jockey.

Todd, in his cramped office at his stable beside the track, believes Gutierrez will rank among the sport's greats. He invokes the name of Bill Shoemaker, the jockey with the most wins, nearly 9,000, including 11 Triple Crown races – though never all three in a single year.

"To me," says Todd, "he has the best hands since Bill Shoemaker." Todd, sitting on a black-metal folding chair, pauses, knowing it is a very big statement to make. "That's just my own personal opinion. Shoemaker had great hands – horses just ran for him. If you were to ask people who had the best hands, they'd tell you Shoemaker. It's soon going to be Mario Gutierrez."

Gutierrez quickly won jockey-of-the-year titles in Vancouver as he learned to ride among a packed bunch of horses in the bullring, developing his strategy to tack to the outside, where he could see the race unfold, safe and out of trouble, away from the crowd at the rail. While the rail is often an all-right place to race on big tracks, at Hastings it's danger, where a rider and his horse can get boxed in, and pushed back, a fast way to tally losses.

Gutierrez displayed Job-like patience as a jockey – just as he did at the Kentucky Derby, and especially at the Preakness – waiting for his moment to surge. In the years Gutierrez piled up wins at Hastings, he often hit the final stretch coming from the outside, before winning with a burst at the moment only he saw as the right second. "He can sit chilly," Todd says. "I mean, he just waits, and waits, waits."

It's an innate confidence, a knowledge assured by his magic hands.

"He can feel in his hands how much horse he has," Todd says. "You go too soon, and you're going to run out of horse. He knows when to go, and how much horse he's got to get him to the line, and he's always got that one little last surge – always."

Hastings was indeed a crucible, Gutierrez says.

"Riding at Hastings, I learned how to ride tight, look for spots. Because it's so small, we really had to pay attention to where we were. It helped me a lot, finding my spot, not getting in trouble in races," Gutierrez said in a telephone interview from California after winning the Preakness.

Of his early victories at Hastings, Gutierrez's emerging style flourished most clearly on a mid-October Sunday afternoon in 2007, a big – relatively – $100,000 race (a tiny fraction of the $2-million Kentucky Derby). Some 17 months after he first arrived in Vancouver, Gutierrez mounted Sir Gallovic, a strong horse in Todd's stable, and faced True Metropolitan, a "superstar" horse, according to a report from the time, who had not lost a single race at Hastings that season.

Gutierrez won by a neck, after he "timed his move perfectly." Coming from behind, and running wide, Gutierrez pushed Sir Gallovic to the lead ahead of True Metropolitan on the final turn.

"He's done that forever," remembers van Oostdam, the groom.

The now 25-year-old jockey deflects questions of how he is suddenly on par with his profession's best riders, after crafting his skills during a long apprenticeship before, without a misstep, performing on the biggest stage. Like an artist who refuses to, or cannot express, the technique and talent behind brush strokes, Gutierrez is happy to leave it to others to talk about his riding.

"I just love racing," he said in an interview. "The best times of my life is when I'm on the back of a horse."

****************

Gutierrez grew up in the rural village of El Higo, in the state of Veracruz, some 400 kilometres north of Mexico City. His family, parents, a brother, two sisters, lived on another man's farm, where his father, Mario Sr. – a jockey himself for several years – trained quarter horses. Gutierrez idolized his father, and was riding by the time he was 5. As a teenager he raced locally, quarter horses, sprinters over short distances, before making the jump to Mexico City, the big track and thoroughbreds, to earn money for his family.

It was there, at the Hipodromo de las Americas, that he was spotted by Terry Jordan, then a Vancouver horse trainer with a vacation condo in Acapulco who would come to watch races in the city on weekends. Gutierrez was a rookie, with just a couple wins, and earning a pittance, barely $100 a month, but Jordan spotted the natural talent immediately, and invited him to make the move to Vancouver, the promise of more money. With Vancouver jockey agent Wayne Snow, Jordan started the paper work to move the young man north.

"Oh my god," remembers Jordan, who now runs horses at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, of the first time seeing Gutierrez. "This kid looks like he belongs on a horse. When a lot of riders are up on a horse, they don't look like they belong. And the horse knows. The reins are a telegraph to the horse's brain. When you've got the magic hands, the horse knows."

Gutierrez arrived in Vancouver in May six years ago. He immediately set about winning 91 races his first season.

"When he gets on the back of the horse, he becomes part of the horse," Snow says. "I don't know how much you've watched jockeys and horses but you see them, the jockeys, jumping up and down, and whacking away. Once in a while it might work but on the better horses it doesn't. The mediocre and the bad jockeys try to force them to do things the horse can't do, or is reluctant to do. The great riders, all down through history, get the horse, become part of the horse– and the horse responds."

As Gutierrez refined his raw talent at Hastings – Todd insists, "I didn't teach him anything" – he could easily have remained undiscovered, having built a comfortable life in Vancouver after coming out of a poor childhood. His Vancouver family brought him to race in California several times and Todd remembers an hour-plus talk on a wharf in San Francisco a couple years ago, trying to push Gutierrez to take risks to break into the top-tier California racing scene.

But Gutierrez, whose voice these days still really lights up at the mention of Vancouver, resisted, hesitated. He was uncertain of the outer bounds of his own talent. He would get moody when he'd lose, blaming himself.

"He lacked confidence coming from humble beginnings," says Todd, a horse and rider clomping by outside his half-open office door. "I don't think he ever believed– or still doesn't believe today – that he's as good as he is."

Again, this past winter, the team was in California, at Santa Anita Park just outside Los Angeles, but Gutierrez wasn't getting much notice, or horses to ride. He wanted to go home. Then, at a birthday party two days after Christmas, a barbecue in a garage, a racing crowd, a connection clicked between Todd, the host, and a veteran jockey agent, Ivan Puhich, a 6-foot-8, 85-year-old ex-marine.

Puhich, a six-decade veteran in the business, had been on the mend from colon cancer for more than the past year. He was a hard man to fell. He fought in the Second World War on Okinawa against the Japanese, his left hand mauled by a land mine. In 1951, he was a heavyweight boxing national champion in college.

"I'll take the kid," Puhich announced, with the asterisk of needing to watch the jockey ride. The next day, Gutierrez, atop a Todd-owned horse, Two Feathers, won his first race at Santa Anita.

Dominoes became to tumble.

Not long after, Puhich called Gutierrez to work out a horse named I'll Have Another, whose owner Reddam had happened to see Gutierrez win at Santa Anita, liked his look, and wanted to gamble on him. Gutierrez came back from the workout amazed, as though after a life of mastery driving old Fords he just got a quick spin in a Ferrari. He didn't think he'd get a chance to ride I'll Have Another – too good a horse for an inexperienced nobody – but got the call for a big race, the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in early February. There, a huge long shot at 43 to 1, Gutierrez won, coming around the final turn wide, in a final blast of speed, standing still in stirrups atop the horse, hardly using his whip – the hallmarks of his Hastings' wins.

In a conference call with reporters several days after he won the Preakness, Gutierrez again turned all credit to I'll Have Another, a horse who had promise as a two-year-old but was hurt in the fall, so came into this year fairly not widely regarded. "Every time you switch gears, he'll just give it to you," Gutierrez said. "He loves racing. You have no idea. It's such a wonderful feeling on his back. He loves to be a winner. I can feel it when I'm on top of him."

Indeed, through racing history, there has been a long debate over the real value of a jockey, and whether any jockey is really great. In a 1956 issue of Sports Illustrated, opinion ranged from comparing a good jockey to the conductor of an orchestra, a horse race as a symphony in motion, capable of coaxing miracles from a horse, to very modest takes of value around just 10 per cent of the total package – roughly the cut most jockeys get of a race purse.

On a great horse, some racing types figure a jockey hardly counts for anything – hang on, and just don't screw it up.

Still, horse owners and trainers like to have a jockey they know, one with an established reputation, a winner, on their horses. After Gutierrez's first long-shot win in February with I'll Have Another, the young jockey usually would have then been pushed aside for a bigger name, which happens, Snow says, "99.999 per cent of the time." But Reddam kept his bet on Gutierrez – he and trainer O'Neill saw the percolating magic between the rider and their horse – and the jockey led I'll Have Another to a win at the important Santa Anita Derby in early April.

He won coming down the stretch on the outside, as at Hastings, as at the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness.

Reddam's bet on Gutierrez, obviously, paid big – but Gutierrez is entwined in the victories, not just some guy along for the ride on a horse on the verge of racing legend. At the final turn of the Preakness, Gutierrez was essential to victory, even as it was I'll Have Another finding his jet-speed gear. Coming around the turn wide, and straightening for the stretch run, I'll Have Another's head suddenly veered right and Gutierrez – criticized earlier this year by other jockeys and horse people as too weak and inexperienced to ably manage his horse – wrenched the reins back to the left, bringing his horse inline for the final sprint.

It was one of the few times Gutierrez was notably physical active, a forced break from his quiet posture. In L.A. this year, he had started lifting weights, hitting the gym, for the first time, somewhat daunted in the jockeys' room by the veterans, half-nervous to bare his less-than-sculpted chest.

But Gutierrez, who weighs about 115 pounds, is about economy of effort, obvious exertion only as necessary. He rides with his stirrups high, which demands solid core strength, for excellent balance. It's one of the first things Terry Jordan noticed in Mexico City.

In the final yards to the finish at the Preakness, as Hall of Fame jockey Smith's arms and shoulders pumped atop Bodemeister, Gutierrez whipped his horse a couple times with his right hand but was otherwise mostly still.

Jockey Luis Contreras admires Gutierrez's understated style. Contreras, a year older than Gutierrez, also came to Canada from Mexico and last year had one of the best seasons at Woodbine in Toronto a jockey has ever had. He raced his first Kentucky Derby in May, along with Gutierrez, but Contreras didn't come up lucky, as his horse clipped heels with another horse out of the starting gate.

"He is very smart to put horses out of the troubles – that helps a lot," Contreras says. "He is quiet and steady on the horse. If you have a clean trip, and confidence in the horse, the horse is going to give you everything."

Horse racing is a sport of skill and strategy but more so than most endeavours horse racing is a realm of luck, at the betting window, and aboard the horse – even getting the chance to get aboard a horse.

"Just think," marvels Drew Forster, Gutierrez's agent in Vancouver last year, walking beside the Hastings track in the early morning. "All the great riders who never get a horse like this."

Todd, who built a large customs broker and coached top-level women's softball alongside his racing business, knows there are only so many variables one can control: "You've got to have luck in this game."

But luck doesn't just happen. Gutierrez was in the right place at the right time but was able to deliver – to marshal and unleash the energy of the horse – when he was given the opportunity, however unlikely the occurrence of that chance was. In both the Derby and the Preakness, he outduelled one of the best in the business, Mike Smith, inducted to the racing Hall of Fame in 2003 – when Gutierrez was a teenager racing quarter horses in his Mexico village. At 46, Smith is 21 years older than Gutierrez.

"I thought I had him this time," said Smith after the Preakness, losing the race in the last moment at the wire, half-dumbfounded that Gutierrez was able to conjure more from I'll Have Another than Smith could from Bodemeister. He gave Gutierrez credit, calling him a "brilliant young rider."

Back at the quiet and empty jockeys room at Hastings, beside the show circle and the track, a TV inside, on mute, is tuned to TSN, a sports-highlight show plays. Fernando Perez is dressed and ready for some morning riding. Like Gutierrez, the jockey came to Vancouver from Mexico City. As Gutierrez races in the sport's brightest spotlights, Perez sees the same combination of calm and intensity he saw at close range hundreds of times at Hastings.

"In this business, when you relax, everything works better," says Perez of Gutierrez's quiet atop a horse.

"He puts the horse in the good spot, and moves with the horse when he needs to move. Not too early, not too late. Perfect."

***************

Now, all that remains is the daunting Big Sandy, the nickname of the huge dirt oval at Belmont Park, the longest thoroughbred track in North America. The mile-and-a-half distance is longer than most thoroughbreds will ever run. Plenty of people are rooting for Gutierrez – horse racing fans love the unlikely. And the story is everywhere. Enough veterans, however, scoff that the kid even has a chance at Belmont Park.

Jockey Kent Desormeaux – inducted to the racing hall of fame in 2004, when Gutierrez was 17 and racing quarter horses in rural Mexico – was himself on the verge of the Triple Crown four years when his horse Big Brown failed on the final turn of the Belmont. Desormeaux, after this year's Preakness, declared that the young jockey and his horse, both first-timers at the Belmont, "will be lost" on Big Sandy. The veteran, who won the Belmont the year after failing with Big Brown, will ride long-shot Guyana Star Dweej on Saturday.

On Wednesday this week, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas came out jawing. Lukas's horse in the Belmont, Optimizer, has the No. 10 post, right beside Gutierrez and I'll Have Another in No. 11. Lucas, who had stitches done by a plastic surgeon on Tuesday after being kicked in the head by a horse, asserted he'd wouldn't run with the inexperienced Gutierrez, saying more riders than horses have lost the Belmont. "There's something about it," Lukas said.

Others who also know what they're talking about are far more gracious. Ron Turcotte, the Canadian rider of Secretariat – whose never-surpassed 1973 run at the Belmont is one of the sport's greatest moments – believes in Gutierrez. Big Sandy, Turcotte, said in late May, won't befuddle the rookie jockey. "Mario Gutierrez is a very cool rider," Turcotte said.

Gutierrez remains closely connected to Vancouver. He came back to his second home after the Kentucky Derby, and again after the Preakness, both times to decompress in a place he feels most comfortable. He has applied for Canadian citizenship.

On the last day of May, in the evening, cool and overcast, the border to the United States was across the street, the truck crossing into Washington State south of Vancouver and near Todd's home in White Rock. It was a Thursday evening, 8 p.m., and inside Todd's The Derby Bar and Grill, attached to his customs broker business, the world's hottest jockey fielded some questions.

Dressed in grey – a collared shirt open at the neck, vest, pants, and a silver chain and crucifix on his neck– the jockey was loose, a 25-year-old looking much more like a teenager. He worked the crowd like a pro, as he has through the past month and even as the crush of media becomes constant. One wag jokingly asked if there would be long-shot 15-to-1 odds again on Gutierrez and his horse at the Belmont, as there was in Kentucky.

"You know," Gutierrez smiled, "I just don't think so."

Asked to reminiscence about the Preakness, the stretch run where few people thought he'd be able to run down Bodemeister, Gutierrez conceded there was "one second" when he thought he'd blown it, undercut by tactical errors. And even after the nose-at-the-wire win, it still felt like a fairy tale, like so much of his extraordinary story. Back in his hotel room, changing and getting ready for dinner, Gutierrez pulled out his laptop to watch a replay of the race. It got his heart pumping, "100 miles per hour," and the climax dazzled even the man who orchestrated it.

"I was like, 'Oh my god, Mario, you're not going to get there.'"

Patrons' laughs abounded at The Derby Bar and Grill, Gutierrez in fine form for a hometown crowd.

On the question of criticism, he dismissed the swirls of criticism, insisting he didn't much care to hang out with other jockeys, insisting he wasn't about to change his Hastings-forged style at the biggest moment of his career.

Asked about I'll Have Another, he provided answers he has before, about the horse's heart, the horse's nose for victory.

Then, however, Gutierrez also allowed a fraction of a peek at the real secret.

"You're going to think I'm crazy," said the jockey.

A shy smile.

A magician hinting at the undiscovered equation of the incalculable.

"He understands me. He thinks the same way I think."

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