Even if you know nothing about horse racing, you know what the Kentucky Derby is - and what it stands for. You know about its importance in the sport, and you likely know about the pageantry, fancy hats and mint juleps. You may even know the horse that won this year's Kentucky Derby: I'll Have Another. The jockey who rode that horse, Mario Gutierrez, will ride at Emerald Downs Sunday.
"In horse racing, the Kentucky Derby moves the needle," says Bruun. "It's hard to underestimate how much that means. Winning the Kentucky Derby is getting your ticket punched in the sport."
Brunn knows what he's talking about. Still, that doesn't mean you necessarily know all that much about Gutierrez. It's far more likely you know of the horse that aided his meteoric rise from obscurity. Gutierrez rode I'll Have Another to victory in the Santa Anita Derby, and later the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. The 25-year-old jockey was poised to make a run at the Triple Crown at Belmont before being derailed by a tendon injury to I'll Have Another that forced the colt to retire. I'll Have Another has since been sold for $10 million to Japanese interests and is expected to begin his breeding career shortly.
Gutierrez, meanwhile, is scheduled to drive from Southern California to Vancouver, B.C. with a final destination of what amounts to his home track, Hastings Racecourse. Gutierrez plans to ride the remainder of the summer in Vancouver before returning to California for the fall meet at Santa Anita. On his way up to Vancouver he'll make a stop Sunday in Auburn, for what has the makings of a major day at the track. Gutierrez will ride in several races, with the main course being the $50,000 Kent Handicap. In that mile and one-sixteenth event with a field of 3-year-old fillies, Gutierrez will be atop a horse by the name of Regal Betty.
A native of Veracruz, Mexico, Gutierrez is the son of a jockey who moved to Canada and made a name riding at Hastings Racecourse, where he won riding titles in 2007 and 2008. He relocated to Southern California last winter, a hub for horseracing. But it wasn't until being paired with I'll Have Another that Gutierrez's career really took off.
"He went from being an unheralded, relatively obscure jockey, to the top," says Bruun.
When describing Gutierrez, Bruun mentions his character first, calling him "really polite," "kind of soft-spoken," and a "sweet-type kid." He says success doesn't seem to have changed him at all.
"He's very popular," says Bruun, 'and not spoiled at all."
When it comes to what makes Gutierrez successful riding horses, Bruun starts with the obvious - his size - and goes from there.
"It's a very rough-and-tumble sport," says Bruun. "It takes an extraordinary amount of talent. [Gutierrez] is tremendously talented. He hadn't really had the opportunity, but now he's proving that, when he gets on the right horse, he can ride with anybody."
Bruun says it's been 15 years since Emerald Downs hosted a Kentucky Derby winner, way back in 1997 when Gary Stevens appeared at the track. Basically, it's a pretty big deal. So they're making a big deal about it. In addition 10 races, including two stakes races, Gutierrez will be available to meet fans during a planned autograph session.
"The story here is there's a Kentucky Derby winner riding at Emerald Downs," offers Bruun, saying the expected sunshine shouldn't hurt. "It'll be interesting. We're excited about it."