Jockey Gutierrez returns to ride at Vancouver track
Published Monday, July 2, 2012 10:26PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, July 2, 2012 11:16PM EDT
VANCOUVER -- Jockey Mario Gutierrez returned to ride again Monday at the little track where his unsung career began.
The two stakes races at Hastings Racecourse were the first for Gutierrez at the Vancouver track since he was denied a chance at the Triple Crown when Canadian-owned I'll Have Another was forced to withdraw from the Belmont Stakes due to a career-ending leg injury. Gutierrez had raced the horse to victories in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
"It's such a great feeling to come back," Gutierrez told The Canadian Press. "Many people think I'm crazy or wrong."
Gutierrez, a 25-year-old Veracruz, Mexico, native honed his skills at Hastings for six seasons before leaving last year for the big-time tracks of California, Kentucky, New York and Maryland. He said other jockeys questioned why he would want to go back and race at a track where the purses are smaller and the lights less bright. But he is intent on coming back to do all he can to help the sport in his adopted hometown.
"Some people don't understand, but I want to make myself happy," said Gutierrez, who also returned to Vancouver, but did not ride, following the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. "So I'm happy to be here. This is what makes me feel happy. It makes me feel like I'm at my house.
"I'm super-excited. I have a lot of confidence here, great people, and it just feels great to be back."
Gutierrez triumphed in his first race, the $50,000, mile and one-sixteenth Chris Loseth, as he and his horse Devil in Disguise won by a length and a quarter, ahead of favourite Taylors Deal and The Gov. Devil in Disguise, which went off the board with the second-lowest odds of 1.25 to one, paid $4.50 to win, $2.30 to place and $2.10 to show.
Gutierrez came home to saddle up on two horses owned by Glen Todd, a father-figure who helped him get started when he first arrived from Mexico, and trained by Troy Taylor, who he also credits for helping to develop his career. The former Hastings champion jocked enabled Todd and Taylor to win both of the day's stakes races.
In the second one, the Lieutenant Governor's Handicap, which was also worth $50,000, Gutierrez placed just out of the money with a fourth-place finish riding St Liams Halo. But Todd and Taylor still prevailed as stablemate Taylor Said triumphed over the same mile and one-sixteenth distance.
"Oh boy, I can't do better than this," said a smiling Gutierrez. "The other jockey (Fernando Perez) who took over (riding Todd's horses) after I left, he won (the Lieutenant Governor's), so it was awesome. (Todd) had two winners, so it's like win-win-win for everybody."
By returning to Hastings, he risked injuring himself in races that pay less than he could earn elsewhere.
But Gutierrez, who wants to come back to compete at Hastings as often as possible and do as much he can to "push" a track that has seen lean times in recent years, was willing to take the chance.
"As a jockey, we're always going to have these risks," he said. "I can't go out there and be worried about what's going to happen. This is what we love to do. The danger is out there regardless of where I am."
One might think that a return home could make up for some of the disappointment of not being able to race for the Triple Crown. I'll Have Another was scratched a day before the Belmont.
After having more time to reflect, Gutierrez said he is still disappointed about missing out on a chance to guide his horse to a Triple Crown for the first time since Affirmed won it in 1978. But he is still comfortable with his place in Canadian horse racing history.
"I'll take it," said Gutierrez, who hopes to become a Canadian citizen. "Not many riders can say they've won two races of the Triple Crown. Nobody's going to take them away from me. I've got them and they're going to stick around."
Gutierrez's likeness will remain at the track even when he is not physically at Hastings. Great Canadian Gaming Corporation, which operates the track, honoured Gutierrez on Monday with the unveiling a statuette of himself that will remain permanently near the finish line.
"We thought it was important to have a special tribute," said Howard Blank, Great Canadian's vice-president of communications, during a news conference. "Your colours will forever be in our winner's circle."
Gutierrez returned to race under grey skies and rain, which subsided by the time he took to the sloppy five-furlong track for his first race. But there was no dampening the excitement among track officials and race goers who were happy to have a chance to catch his rare races at home.
Breaking from tradition, Gutierrez, dressed in a red and white checkered shirt, waved to the cheering crowd during the parade to the post before both races. After winning the Loseth, Gutierrez hugged Todd and kissed other well wishers in the winner's circle.
"I'm very proud of him," said Todd. "He handled the crowd so well and ended up winning. He loves it here in Vancouver. He wanted to show his appreciation for the fans that got him through the Triple Crown races. You could tell by the people here today. They were here to see Mario."
Although punters did not receive big payoffs from Gutierrez's return, the track did. He helped attract a better-than-average Canada Day holiday Monday crowd. Blank estimated attendance at 13,000, up from the typical 10,000.
The benefit was much more noticeable at the ticket wicket, with a total betting handle of $952,249 -- well above the $629,822 achieved on the same Monday last year.
"It's an honour to have Mario come back and ride at Hastings," said Raj Mutti, the track's general manager. "He's given us a lot of excitement, captures the hearts and imaginations of everyone in the racing community and the city of Vancouver, and we're super-happy to have him ride on July 2nd and have him with us.
"It's been a lot of fun, and we can't thank him enough for everything that he's done in B.C. racing and Hastings Racecourse."
Gutierrez also looks forward to riding at Woodbine in Toronto someday. He was slated to ride at this year's Queen's Plate, but the horse he was scheduled to ride came down with an injury.
Gutierrez will head back for the final two weeks of the season at Santa Anita in Los Angeles and then move to Del Mar in San Diego for a season that runs between July 18 and Sept. 5.
He intends to return Vancouver on the August long weekend for B.C. Cup day, a series of stakes races in which Todd plans to enter several horses.