BALTIMORE Mario Gutierrez gazed over the large group of reporters at the Pimlico stables, nervously grabbing the microphone to discuss the Preakness Stakes.
The 25-year-old Mexican, the new hotshot jockey in the sport of kings, spoke cautiously, exposing a case of jitters he never displays on the track.
"It's new, that's for sure," Gutierrez said, offering a brief smile, when a reporter asked if his new celebrity status might be a little overwhelming.
Gutierrez rode I'll Have Another to a stirring victory in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago and will try for an encore against 10 rivals in Saturday's $1 million Preakness.
He is a newcomer to the sport's largest stage, and describing how his life has changed since winning the Run for the Roses, he said softly, "Before, nobody wanted to talk to me."
As the Derby champion, Gutierrez and his chestnut colt will command the most attention, and a good share of the betting money, in the mile-and-three-16ths Preakness.
Gutierrez is a perfect three-for-three since being paired with I'll Have Another, winning the Grade II Robert Lewis in February and the Santa Anita Derby in April before claiming America's most celebrated race, the Kentucky Derby.
While some people were saying, "Mario Who?" after the Derby, Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens was not surprised that Gutierrez, who raced in relative anonymity at tiny Hastings Park in Vancouver, had found his stride at Churchill Downs.
"He's one of those young men that horses just run for him. I don't know why," Stevens, an NBC horse racing analyst, told Reuters.
"When he gets on a horse, if somebody else has been riding them, they automatically move up five lengths.
"He's still a diamond in the rough. He's not as polished as he'll be five years from now. But he's polished enough. He's exceptional."
The Derby was Gutierrez's first race at Churchill Downs and winning was an emotional experience.
"If you watched the video of him walking into the winner's circle after the race, all of his emotions came out," said Stevens. "He cried like a little baby. He knows how big it is."
I'll Have Another will break from the ninth post on Saturday, perfectly placed two spots to the outside of the 8-5 pre-race favorite Bodemeister.
Should he win the Preakness, Gutierrez will take the colt to the Belmont Stakes on June 9 with hopes of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Over the last two weeks Gutierrez has been all over print, television, and social media. He even threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers game.
When asked what his life has been like since the Derby, Gutierrez nodded toward the reporters standing in front of him.
"Like this," he said with a grin.
(Editing by Julian Linden)