Growing up in Jalisco, Mexico, Juan Gutierrez thought jockeys were superheroes.
If that’s true, there is no bigger hero at Emerald Downs than Gutierrez, last year’s leading rider at the racetrack, who is battling for the lead again this year.
“The racetrack was 10 minutes from my house and growing up, I always wanted to be a rider,” he said.
Gutierrez, 43, began that journey as an 8-year-old riding ponies on his grandfather’s farm.
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“I was comfortable because that’s a lot different than riding racehorses,” he said.
That would come later. His career really took off with an assist from Howard Belvoir, the longtime Northwest trainer. Gutierrez was working as an exercise rider for Belvoir at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California, and Belvoir helped persuade Gutierrez to come to Emerald Downs in 2000.
It was a great career move. With help from his longtime jockey agent, Keith Drebin, Gutierrez soon was one of the top jockeys at Emerald Downs.
For 10 years, from 2002 to 2011, Gutierrez was in the top five of the jockey standings while moving into the No. 2 spot on Emerald’s career wins list behind Gallyn Mitchell.
But Gutierrez wanted more last year after finishing second or third for six straight years.
“I put it in my mind to do better last year,” he said. “I try as hard as I can every race, no matter the horse or the trainer. Winning the title was an accomplishment from a lot of years of working hard.”
Gutierrez hasn’t relaxed since winning the title, and he said he is the same person and jockey, only now he is more in demand and gets to ride better horses. Once known for having great success riding longshots, he is seldom aboard a longshot these days.
Gutierrez is one victory behind leader Isaias Enriquez in the jockey standings with 47 wins despite taking a couple of days off last month to see his daughter graduate from UC Davis.
“Last year, I won 117 races, and this year my goal is to win more than that,” he said.
Trainer Tom Wenzel has teamed with Gutierrez on many stakes wins, including winning the 2007 Longacres Mile with The Great Face. Wenzel often has Gutierrez ride his best horses.
“From the time he got here, he has just been the absolute professional in how he handles his business,” Wenzel said. “He and Keith have been a good team. Juan will work hard in the morning (working out horses), and then he will ride a full-day card. And he will ride the less-talented horses just as hard as the stakes horses.”
Gutierrez insists that won’t change. Maybe that explains how he seems to avoid the prolonged slumps that some jockeys endure.
And for Gutierrez, it doesn’t matter if he is riding a speed horse or one who likes to come from way behind.
“Look at my two Longacres Mile wins,” he said. “One was on the lead (The Great Face) and the other was 20 lengths behind (No Giveaway in 2005, at 60-1).”
His success last year allowed Gutierrez to spend time with his family in Mexico after Emerald’s season ended, rather than ride elsewhere. He plans to do the same this year, at least for part of the offseason, but expect him back here next spring.
Speaking of the spring, Gutierrez shares the dream of most jockeys of riding at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
“Every rider would like to win the Kentucky Derby, but I am happy with what I have done already,” he said.
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or firstname.lastname@example.org