NEW YORK - Jockey Mario Gutierrez wore blue jeans, sneakers and a black vest to a news conference held by the New York Racing Association Tuesday afternoon to promote his Triple Crown try aboard I’ll Have Another in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.
It was fitting attire to reflect the calm and collected demeanor of the precocious 25-year-old from Veracruz, Mexico, who has risen from obscurity to the brink of history in a little more than four weeks.
He smiled often and laughed easily while conveying that he understands the magnitude of what lies ahead. He assured every interviewer that he will not allow himself to lose focus.
Gutierrez was riding at little-known Hastings Race Course in Vancouver as recently as 2010. He was struggling to establish himself in the deep and talented Southern California jockey colony before owner J. Paul Reddam, always looking to spot new talent, gave him a chance aboard I'll Have Another. The hard-driving three-year-old and his unflappable rider are unbeaten in four starts together.
The youngster showed no sign of nervousness before either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness Stakes. He does not expect the butterflies to arrive now.
"How can I be nervous?" he said. "I have to be focused. I want to be the same guy I was four months ago."
Gutierrez and I'll Have Another put themselves on the Kentucky Derby trail by pulling an upset at 43-to-1 in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 4. He earned his first Grade 1 victory when they outdueled Creative Cause by a desperate nose in the Santa Anita Derby. Next came a 1 1/2-length victory in the Kentucky Derby and a dramatic triumph by a neck in the Preakness, the exact margins achieved by Affirmed against archrival Alydar when he went on to the last Triple Crown sweep in 1978.
The self-effacing rider gives all of the credit to a colt with a powerful closing kick and an equally strong will to win.
"He's awesome. He's the greatest thing to ever happen to me in my life. He's so professional," Gutierrez said. "He absolutely changed my life."
Newly elected Racing Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, who will replace Julien Leparoux atop talented Union Rags for the Belmont, looked on approvingly. He applauded the ease with which Gutierrez handled the big stage after arriving in New York for the first time.
"He's doing great. He has a great head on himself," Velazquez said. "Listen, enjoy the moment."
Trainer Doug O'Neill insisted he is not at all worried about his young pilot as the buildup to the big race intensifies.
"He's so cool," he said.
Gutierrez is to tour the 1 1/2-mile track at Belmont Park with retired jockey Richard Migliore on Thursday. He should have as many as five mounts on Friday—one is entered for the main track only. He will have the opportunity to simulate the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes by riding 12-to-1 Boxeur des Rues at the same distance in the Grade II Brooklyn Handicap for O'Neill.
It did not take long at all for Gutierrez to familiarize himself with the congestion and the bustling streets the Big Apple is known for.
"Crazy drivers," he said.
Watch Live: The second leg of the Triple Crown is set, and Orb is the even-money favorite at the Preakness Stakes. There's a growing feeling that this three-year-old bay colt may be special enough to start a historic run.
Orb is the even-money favorite at Saturday's Preakness, and there's a growing feeling that this 3-year-old bay colt may be special enough to give thoroughbred racing its first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.