Six years ago, a teenage Mario Gutierrez was in the Great White
North, trying to eke out a living and keep warm in frigid outposts like
Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, quite an adjustment for a native
of sunny Mexico.
Fast forward to Feb. 4, 2012. Gutierrez rides I’ll Have Another
to a smashing 2 ¾-length victory at 43-1 in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis
Stakes at historic Santa Anita Park and thrusts himself firmly into the
Triple Crown picture.
Next up: Saturday’s Grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, the
West’s major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Gutierrez has
to pinch himself to believe this fairytale ride.
“This is a great opportunity,” said the 25-year-old Gutierrez,
whose agent is 85-year-old ex-Marine Ivan Puhich. “I’m very excited. I
came here not expecting this kind of thing to happen to me. I was hoping
it would eventually, but coming this soon makes me very happy.
“It’s every rider’s dream to run in the Kentucky Derby and I’m no
different. I think I would have a good chance with my horse, if he does
well in the Santa Anita Derby.
“I’ve worked him a few times and he’s training good. I worked him
before I won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, I worked him at Santa Anita
after that between races and I worked him at Hollywood. I just hope
everything goes well on Saturday.
“I started riding in Mexico City and rode there for eight months.
Then I moved to Canada in 2006 and that’s where I rode most of the time
for trainer Troy Taylor before coming to California to ride for him
when he brought horses to Santa Anita.
“It was bitter cold in Canada, so it’s a huge difference riding
in Southern California. The tracks in Canada are small. Santa Anita is
the real deal.”
Early on at Santa Anita, Gutierrez caught the educated eye of
prominent horseman J. Paul Reddam, who owns I’ll Have Another, and
suggested that trainer Doug O’Neill give him a chance on the chestnut
son of Flower Alley.
Understandably, Gutierrez, who had 10 wins from 99 rides at Santa
Anita through Saturday, has benefited from the wealth of knowledge and
experience Puhich brings to the game.
“I just met Ivan a couple months ago,” Gutierrez said. “I’m very
happy. He’s good people. Everybody knows him. He’s a little bit old but
that doesn’t bother him at all.”
Hardly. “I started as an agent when I was 15 years old in
Seattle, where I also was galloping horses,” Puhich said. “I joined the
Marine Corps in 1945.”
That was good news for Uncle Sam. Nearly seven decades later, Puhich is good news for Mario Gutierrez.
In other Santa Anita Derby news:
Impressive maiden winner Paynter worked “super good” Sunday at
Hollywood Park, according to Bob Baffert assistant Jim Barnes. The son
of Awesome Again worked seven furlongs in 1:25.20, handily from the
gate. Barnes said that Baffert’s other two Derby candidates, Liaison and
Blueskiesnrainbows, are scheduled to work five furlongs tomorrow at
With his recent workouts “over the top,” trainer Jim Cassidy said
promising maiden Brother Francis likely would gallop into the Santa
Probable for the Santa Anita Derby: Brother Francis, Garrett
Gomez; Blueskiesnrainbows; Baby Blake; Creative Cause, Joel Rosario;
Liaison, Rafael Bejarano; Midnight Transfer, Mike Smith; I’ll Have
Another, Mario Gutierrez; Longview Drive; Paynter; and Senor Rain.