LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) - A year ago, Mario Gutierrez was like every other struggling jockey, watching the Kentucky Derby on television because no-one would give him a ride in the big race.
The Mexican had left his homeland six years earlier and moved to Canada on a wing and a prayer, hoping that he would eventually make it in the United States.
After watching last year’s Derby on television, he took a gamble and moved to California but his grand plans were not bearing fruit.
Starved of opportunities, the 25-year-old was considering moving back to Canada when trainer Doug O‘Neill saw him riding in a race and spotted something he liked.
“I don’t know if he won or not, but he really looked good in the irons to me. I said, we need to try some new blood,” O‘Neill explained.
“I couldn’t pick Mario out of a lineup at the time.”
It was a hunch that paid off handsomely. On Saturday, Gutierrez not only got to ride at Churchill Downs for the first time, but he won the Derby on board O‘Neill’s three-year-old I’ll Have Another.
“Like all jockeys, we all dream that one day fortunately I would be in the Kentucky Derby,” he said.
“I had the dream, but I wasn’t thinking it was going to be the next year.”
O‘Neill said he and owner J. Paul Reddam decided to give Gutierrez, who was taught to ride by his father, a quarterback rider in Mexico City, the chance to ride I’ll Have Another ahead of a more season jockey, after the pair formed a natural bond.
“I had him come work the colt. They got along beautifully,” O‘Neill said.
“Paul said, ‘let’s give the kid a chance’. Thank you, Paul, because this kid can really ride.”
Last month, Gutierrez won the Santa Anita Derby on I’ll Have Another. It was the biggest win of his life but he was undaunted by the prospect of tackling an even bigger race.
“I think we all need opportunity and great things can happen. I‘m so thankful that this happened to me,” he said.
“This is the great opportunity of my life. I wasn’t going to come here and melt down, that’s for sure.”
Additional reporting by Gavin Cook; Editing by Ian Ransom