BOZICH: I'll Have Another's jockey hopes to win big Saturday
ELMONT, N.Y. – Bill Shoemaker couldn't win a Triple Crown. Laffit Pincay never came close. Ditto for Angel Cordero.
Now here comes Mario Gutierrez, a junior-varsity quarterback trying to win the Super Bowl. The jockey nobody knew is one race from becoming the jockey that everybody loves – or blames.
Gutierrez is determined to achieve something Gary Stevens, Pat Day or Jerry Bailey could not deliver – wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the same year.
"It's crazy," trainer Shug McGaughey said. "I never heard his name before the Kentucky Derby. You don't see stuff like this."
You might see it Saturday. Gutierrez, 25, will be in search of history when he climbs aboard I'll Have Another in the Belmont Stakes.
So far Gutierrez has ridden like Super Mario. He's two-for-two on the Unflappable Meter. He navigated the colt through the crowded Derby field at Churchill Downs. Then he showed an uncommon sense of pace and distance while urging I'll Have Another past Bodemeister down the Preakness stretch.
"He's been very patient so far and ridden two great races," said Dale Romans, the man who trains Dullahan, the colt expected to be I'll Have Another's most formidable challenger.
"But we'll see how he does over here."
Over here, of course, is Belmont Park, the massive, mile-and-a-half oval with the majestic turns where Triple Crown dreams regularly disappear. On several post-Belmont reports, this was the official reason given for the failure:
Jockeys asking their mounts to run too fast too soon, the way young and inexperienced Ronnie Franklin did when he rushed Spectacular Bid to a three-length lead about three-quarters of a mile from the finish line in 1979.
Guys who forget that the pole at the start of the final turn is five-eighths of a mile from the finish line, not merely a half-mile, the way it is at many tracks. Cue the video from 1998 when Belmont track announcer Tom Durkin wondered what Kent Desormeaux was doing when he starting rushing Real Quiet to the front.
"It's a funny race because of the size of the track," said McGaughey, who trained 1989 Belmont winner Easy Goer. "You've got to keep your wits about you."
Gutierrez has heard the chatter that despite his marvelous work in the Derby and Preakness his relative inexperience is another thing that I'll Have Another must overcome. D. Wayne Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer, chirped that jockeys, not horses, lose the Belmont and that Gutierrez was jumping into the deep end of the pool.
On Friday, he will take a test drive, riding Boxer Des Rues, over the same distance as the Belmont.
Last week the jockey started studying video replays of the 11 failed Triple Crown attempts over the last 34 years. He did not focus on the winners. He made a list of went wrong with the losers.
What did Gutierrez learn?
Don't ask. He won't tell. Not a word. Gutierrez is dealing in strategy, not secrets.
"If I show what I think I saw on the videos, it's just going to open more doors to people saying stuff about me," Gutierrez said. "So I just prefer to keep it quiet and then no comment on anything.
"I'm going to take the race as a challenge for me like the other ones. It was first time for me Kentucky Derby and first time Preakness and it's going to be the first time, so just going to do the same thing."
This will be different. In the Derby, nobody was trying to stop him. Nobody had any reason to stop him. Nobody knew anything about him, other than he grew up riding in match races in Mexico and established himself at Hastings Race course in British Columbia.
In the Preakness, Gutierrez was not pursuing a Triple Crown over a mile-and-a-half.
Now Mario Gutierrez is trying to achieve something that Bill Shoemaker, Angel Cordero and Laffit Pincay could not achieve – winning a Triple Crown. He doesn't want the colt to be another victim of driver error.