LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Last May, jockey Mario Gutierrez was the leading rider at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Kentucky Derby was a faraway event that he watched on television in the jockey's room.
He migrated to Southern California in the winter, going from horse racing's minors to the majors, hoping to get better mounts. Prominent owner J. Paul Reddam noticed the 25-year-old from Mexico and told his trainer, Doug O'Neill, to give the virtual unknown a chance.
"He just really looked good in the irons to me," Reddam said.
So owner and trainer put Gutierrez on their Kentucky Derby hopeful, I'll Have Another. The jockey rode the colt perfectly in his first Derby prep on Feb. 4, winning the Robert Lewis Stakes at 43-1. The trainer waited two months before sending I'll Have Another out to win the April 7 Santa Anita Derby.
Some people might have looked for a big-name rider for the Kentucky Derby. These people were not going to change a thing.
When I'll Have Another drew the 19 post, Gutierrez got condolences. He saw an opportunity, thinking he might be able to keep his colt away from the traffic and in the clear.
The rider could not have drawn a better trip on a piece of paper. With Bodemeister running the other speed out of the race, Gutierrez had I'll Have Another outside, away from the other horses.
And just when Bodemeister came into the Churchill Downs stretch and opened up a huge lead, threatening to do a Spend A Buck, Gutierrez got down on his horse and sent him after the leader.
If Bodemeister had held on after running the first quarter mile in 22.32 seconds, the half in 45.39, and six furlongs in 109.80, it would have been one of the great Derby wins in history. But he could not hold on. I'll Have Another made up three lengths in the final 200 yards and went by Bodemeister late to win the Derby by 11/2 lengths.
Bodemeister held on for second, a neck ahead of Dullahan. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were bet on Bodemeister just before post time and he went off favored at 4-1.
"He was being pressed, but he's a brilliant horse," said Bodemeister's trainer, Bob Baffert. "That's the way he wanted to run."
The Pennsylvania horse, Union Rags, was the 5-1 second choice after being favored all day. At the start, Take Charge Indy turned left and Dullahan turned right. Union Rags, unfortunately, was in the middle, rattling around between two 1,000-pound thoroughbreds, the race plan shattered in a millisecond.
Instead of being closer to the pace as trainer Michael Matz had hoped, Union Rags was 18th after a quarter mile, getting inundated by what looked like a sandstorm, his white blaze completely covered before the field hit the wire for the first time.
Union Rags was 16th at the quarter pole. He passed five horses in the final 200 yards to finish seventh, 71/2 lengths behind the winner.
The winner was accompanied to the gate by the great Lava Man, the only horse to win a Grade I stakes on dirt, turf, and synthetic.
O'Neill has mostly been a claiming trainer. He actually had a string at Parx Racing a while back. Lava Man was his superstar, but the horse was a Southern California phenomenon. His form never held when he went out of town.
O'Neill had been to the Derby once before. Pennsylvania-bred Great Hunter finished 13th in 2007. Stablemate Liquidity finished 14th.
The trainer obviously learned his Derby lessons well. He came back with a 15-1 shot, the ninth choice in the 20-horse field. I'll Have Another ran the mile and a quarter in 2:01.83 and paid $32.60 to win.
"When you tell people you're in the horse-racing game, they ask you, 'Have you won the Kentucky Derby?' " O'Neill said. "Now, I can say, yes I have, 2012."
Thirteen months ago, O'Neill's brother, Dennis, also his assistant, bought I'll Have Another at a Florida horse sale for $35,000. The $1,459,600 winner's purse increased the colt's earnings to nearly $2.1 million, a pretty nice return on investment.
Now, it is on to the May 19 Preakness at Pimlico for I'll Have Another, the only horse alive for the elusive Triple Crown, unclaimed since 1978.
Gutierrez was the first rider to win with his first Derby mount since Stewart Elliott's brilliant ride got Smarty Jones home in 2004.
"I was telling some folks that was the second time Mario has ridden on dirt at Churchill and the first time was earlier today," Reddam said.
O'Neill hopes his rider won't become so popular he won't be able to get him anymore. Won't be a problem with I'll Have Another.
"From Mexico to Hastings to the Kentucky Derby," O'Neill said.
A record Derby crowd of 165,307 saw the semi-anonymous horse with the unknown rider win as if he might not be done winning.
The rider has an 85-year-old agent, very old-school Ivan Puhich. When Reddam and O'Neill decided they wanted Gutierrez because they liked what they saw, they could not possibly have imagined this.
"Like all jockeys, we all dream that one day fortunately I would be in the Kentucky Derby," Gutierrez said.
Last May, he wasn't even dreaming it.
"I wasn't thinking it was going to be the next year," the jockey said.
He got his chance and said: "I think we all need an opportunity, and great things can happen. I'm so thankful that this happened to me. I'm happy that I didn't melt down."
Reddam, who got his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Southern California, summed up Saturday's serendipity and the sport he has grown to love.
"Horse racing is the most dangerous kind of addiction because it has intermittent reinforcements," he said.
The man, who owns the winner of the 138th Kentucky Derby, just got the ultimate reinforcement.