Kentucky Derby today has B.C. and Ontario connections

Vancouver-based jockey Mario Gutierrez has a shot at glory Saturday afternoon in the running of North America's biggest annual horse race, the Kentucky Derby.

Vancouver's Mario Gutierrez aboard horse belonging to Windsor, Ont., owner

There will be strong Canadian connections when the horses run for the roses in the Kentucky Derby Saturday afternoon.

Jockey Mario Gutierrez, who raced at Hastings Park in Vancouver for six years, will be riding I'll Have Another, owned by Windsor, Ont., native Paul Reddam.

Gutierrez, 25, dominated the Vancouver horseracing scene for six years and is on a roll, said local racing expert and retired jockey, Tom Wolski.

"He is living every jockey's dream, whether they are old or young," said Wolski. "The ultimate dream is to ride in the Kentucky Derby."

Gutierrez’s story is dream-like. He was a poor farm boy in Mexico when he was spotted by a Vancouver trainer on holidays, who helped bring him to Canada to develop his talent.

Everybody loves his Cinderella story, said trainer Glen Todd, of the North American Thoroughbred Horse Company, who signed an unproven Gutierrez to ride his horses.

Gutierrez got his big break three months ago when he met Reddam, who was looking for a jockey to ride I'll Have Another in a race near Los Angeles.

Almost didn't happen

The meeting between Gutierrez and Reddam almost didn't happen. Gutierrez was homesick for Vancouver, but Todd convinced him to stay in California.

Against long odds, Gutierrez won two big races.

"It's like playing for the Mexican winter league in baseball, then playing at [Vancouver’s] Nat Bailey Stadium in the single-A league and being in the World Series final a month later," Todd said Friday.

Todd said he has a rare combination of abilities.

"He has gifted hands. I say he's got the hands of an angel and the patience of Job. He waits and waits, that's why I’m not worried about him panicking tomorrow."

Wolski agreed and said Guitierrez has a good chance in the year’s biggest North American race if he holds his horse back and waits to make a move.

"It’s a long long race. It will break a lot of horses’ hearts, knowing the finish line hasn’t come up when it was supposed to," said Wolski.

Post time is 3:24 p.m. PT.


With files from the CBC's Leah Hendry