Kentucky Derby: From Mexico to the Biggest Stage

Jockey Mario Gutiérrez expects “the fastest two minutes in sports” to be the longest two minutes of his life. That’s because the 25-year-old will be riding I’ll Have Another in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.

“Those two minutes, I believe they’re going to seem forever to me,” Gutiérrez said. “I know it seems like a short time, two minutes, no big deal, but those are going to be the most important two minutes of my life so far.”

For Gutiérrez, a native of Veracruz, Mexico, the road to the Kentucky Derby has been an unexpected one.  While every jockey dreams of riding in the sport’s biggest spectacle, the dream didn’t become reality for Gutiérrez until a couple of months ago.

“I come from a very small town, and my family didn’t have much money,” he explained. “I was racing quarter horses. I didn’t even know about thoroughbred racing really. I just knew I wanted to be a jockey like my dad.”

In 2006, he was a teen racing in Mexico City when he got the opportunity to be a jockey at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver.  He then worked his way up the jockey ladder. This year, riding in Southern California, Gutiérrez led I’ll Have Another to wins in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby, earning them a trip to the Kentucky Derby.

“As a jockey, you dream, you wish you’ll be there [at the Kentucky Derby], but you never expect it to happen,” Gutiérrez said. “Every jockey trains to go there and ride in that huge race. I’m so excited and so happy that it happened to me.”

With 12-1 odds on I’ll Have Another, Gutiérrez and his horse are considered serious contenders heading into the 138th Run for the Roses. Of course, odds mean little once the bell rings and the gates open.

“The main thing is being in the race,” Gutiérrez said. “If you’re in the race, you can win. Anything can happen in horseracing. There’s going to be unbelievable horses and top jockeys. The best horse that day will win, and whatever is meant to happen will happen.

“I just want to perform well,” he added. “I believe in my horse. I think I can race him with anyone else. … Getting here has been a goal in my life, so it’s already a dream come true. As long as I perform well and my horse gives 100 percent, I’ll be happy.”

And so will his family, even though they won’t be on hand at Churchill Downs to watch the jockey’s Derby debut.

“For us, it’s very difficult to come to the United States,” Gutiérrez said. “The government needs a visa (for Mexican citizens to enter the United States), which is really difficult, so unfortunately they won’t be here. But I’ll make sure they’ll watch me, and I’m 100 percent sure they’ll be cheering for me.”

Considering how much everyone loves an underdog story, it’s a safe to bet they won’t be the only ones pulling for Gutiérrez on race day.

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance sports journalist, chair of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Sports Task Force, and a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow her on Twitter: @BurnsOrtiz

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