NEW YORK (AP) — Taking in the Manhattan skyline from atop the Empire State Building, Mario Gutierrez was a long way from his small hometown near Veracruz, Mexico.
The 25-year-old jockey checked out the view on a sunny Tuesday morning in his first trip to the Big Apple. He’d already visited the ride that got him here, having stopped by Belmont Park earlier to check on I’ll Have Another. Gutierrez and the colt will try to win the Triple Crown for the first time in 34 years on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.
Standing 86 stories above the bustling city, Gutierrez smiled as a knot of photographers closed tightly in on him. “Mario, over here,” they shouted. “Turn this way.” He happily obliged as tourists craned their necks to see the short guy who is the poised to become the toast of the racing world.
Later, Gutierrez told trainer Doug O’Neill about his adventure, admitting that he felt dizzy and joking that the historic building was “2 or 3 inches higher” than the roof at Pimlico where he won the Preakness on May 19.
“I’m not huge on heights,” said O’Neill, who skipped the photo op and met up with his jockey on a rooftop overlooking Rockefeller Center. “You get a little nervous hearing about it.”
Gutierrez has been unflappable since being thrust into the spotlight with I’ll Have Another’s comeback win in the Kentucky Derby on May 5.
“He’s handled the pressure well and he knows his horse well,” former jockey Richard Migliore said. “He and the horse both have a lot of confidence in each other and that’s something that’s critical to their success.”
Migliore plans to walk Belmont’s 1 1-2-mile course with Gutierrez on Thursday, pointing out its sweeping turns and long stretch that make the layout different than the mile tracks where most jockeys ride. Gutierrez is scheduled to ride some races Friday to get used to the conditions before laying it on the line Saturday.
“Learn the poles, they’re very important,” said John Velazquez, who will be aboard Union Rags in the Belmont. “When you run in the Belmont, you got to know where you are.”
Migliore said he’ll caution Gutierrez not to be tricked into starting his final drive too early or else I’ll Have Another might not have enough left to get through the 1,097-yard stretch.
“If you have one momentary lapse where you start to allow your horse to go forward, it’s hard to take it back,” said Migliore, who rode successfully at Belmont for years. “Then you look up and oh my gosh, you have 4 1-2 furlongs to run. That’s the only thing that Mario has to stay conscious of.”
O’Neill said that rider and horse are similarly wired in a special way.
“They both seem to be thriving on all the attention and excitement,” he said. “Instead of getting nervous and anxious, they’re getting excited and pumped up.
“Mario’s parents deserve an ‘A’ for parenting. I don’t know what they role-modeled to him, definitely the results are classy, confident.”
While more than 100,000 people are expected to jam Belmont Park in hopes of seeing history, Gutierrez’s father, mother, two older sisters and younger brother will be watching from Mexico.
“I will never forget my family. I take care of them since I started doing good in British Columbia,” he said. “I can afford to give my family a better living. I build my mom a house five years ago.”
The owners of the farm where his father worked and Gutierrez’s family lived will be on hand at Belmont.
“They know me since I was like 6 years old,” he said, speaking English learned not in a classroom but by watching American TV shows.
Also cheering him will be the men who recruited Gutierrez out of Veracruz to ride their horses in Vancouver, British Columbia. In the winters, owner Glen Todd and trainer Troy Taylor brought their horses and Gutierrez from Canada to California. They usually went to Golden Gate Fields in the San Francisco Bay area, but this year the trio tried their luck farther south at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.
“They do so many things for me. I’m not their family, but he loves me as a son,” Gutierrez said about Todd. “When you move away from family and you’re young and you’re making money, these people always pull me in the right direction.”
The trio share a house, answering to the nickname “Two and a Half Men.”
“I’ll always keep them in my heart,” Gutierrez said.
At Santa Anita, Gutierrez hooked up with Ivan Puhich, an 85-year-old ex-Marine who became his agent. Puhich stayed home during the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but his friend and horse owner Mike Pegram is flying him to New York for the Belmont.
After winning the Preakness on May 19, Gutierrez returned to Hollywood Park and rode a few races. Then he spent the week before the Belmont back in Vancouver, catching up with old friends at Hastings Park, the small track where he first found success.
It was a welcome break from the accelerated pace that swept up Gutierrez on the Triple Crown trail.
He’s been asked repeatedly about the pressure of trying to accomplish a feat that hasn’t been done since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1978, eight years before Gutierrez was born.
“I have nothing to be nervous about,” he said. “My horse is going to be ready, so I have to be ready too.”
Migliore has seen other jockeys walk off the track with their heads down after losing Triple Crown tries, and he thinks it will be different this time.
“Having talked to this kid, I think he’s humble enough and he’s done everything so right up to this point that he’s going to be richly rewarded,” he said.
Gutierrez deflects any praise directed at him back to his horse.
“Because of I’ll Have Another, all these great things are happening to me,” he said. “He absolutely turned my world upside down.”
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