Saturday, May 19, 2012

Quotable: SUPER MARIO On One SMART Horse

"It's not me, it's him. It's all about the horse. He just keeps proving people wrong. I'm so happy for him because he's such a great horse, he's smarter than me. He has a tremendous kick in the end." ~ 25-year-old Jockey Mario Gutierrez of Kentucky Derby, and now, Preakness winner I'll Have Another.

Modesty is one of the endearing qualities of young Mario Gutierrez. But in fact, he has been nothing short of spectacular as I'll Have Another's jockey. Listening to the comments of the trainer, Doug O'Neill, frantically, "I was 'GO, send him!' ... but he (Mario) was so patient," and the philosopher horse-owner Paul Reddam, "I didn't feel confident we were going to get there until 10 yards from the wire. I wasn't sure that we would get there, but I knew that our horse had a lot of heart and a lot of fight"... each confirmed in his own way what a spectacularly professional ride Gutierrez gave his mount.

Setting aside the pressures of big-time competition in the sport, and the fact Mario Gutierrez was, for all intents and purposes (other than apprentice) a rookie, Mario demonstrated the judgment and sang-froid of the greats in the ride he gave I'll Have Another. He was neither impulsive nor timid. He perfectly judged the pace of the race and kept his mount forwardly placed, just off pacesetter Bodemeister's right flank, staying out of traffic trouble and sitting a stalking trip. When they whipped around the turn and Bodemeister who had led all the way setting comfortable fractions kicked into gear, Mario still waited.

In the stands, Doug O'Neill was frantically shouting, "GO, GO, SEND HIM NOW!"... but Mario couldn't hear the trainer's entreaties, and I doubt he would have listened. Had he said anything, I think it would've been, "Chill Doug, I got this."

As Bodemeister began pulling away from the field, looking to everyone like a sure winner, Mario with his eagle's eye for the finish line asked I'll Have Another for his run. And oh, what a GREAT KICK. I'll Have Another began swallowing up huge chunks of terrain as Bodemeister's jock hugged the rail trying to save every last inch of ground, and they galloped toward the approaching wire — then I'll Have Another won by a well-timed, if exhilarating, neck.

Super Mario's quote stands for its honesty. It wasn't false modesty. It is all about the horse. But great jockeys and great champion racehorses develop a symbiotic relationship that is parts respect, and affection, and yes, love. Don't ever believe those in this game who say that great equine athletes don't know what this competition is about, don't know where the wire is. Oh, they know. Angel Cordero, perhaps the greatest of all natural jocks said so himself, speaking of one great champion he rode: When he saw that wire, he pricked back his ears, put his head down and charged, because no one was going to beat him to the finish line.

There's a lot of Cordero in young Mario Gutierrez. Once again, I'll Have Another, "he's such a great horse," has teamed with Mario and their connections to bring them, carry them, tantalizingly close to a Triple Crown win in the Belmont Stakes, for the first time in 34 years.

But the Belmont is the most grueling of the three legs of the Triple Crown. Its mile-and-a-half distance has thrown up more than just a competitive, form cycle barrier to any contender to Secretariat's and Seattle Slew's Crown. It's in the breeding and the bloodlines: Horses in this modern era of racing are bred for speed over stamina and distance. Most of the fastest routing horses will hit an imaginary wall around the mile-and-a-quarter distance when trying to go that extra, final quarter of a mile to glory. It's the longest quarter in horse racing.

So when asked whether I'll Have Another was ready to go for the Triple Crown, Mario Gutierrez smiled thoughtfully and replied in a manner wise beyond his years: "We'll see."

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