LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- What's the first word that comes to mind when it comes to the team of Nyquist and jockey Mario Gutierrez? Perfection!
Gutierrez is undefeated in eight starts aboard Nyquist after putting up a textbook ride in guiding the undefeated, reigning juvenile male champion to a popular victory in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs. The win was the second in as many tries for Gutierrez in America's most prestigious horse race. In 2012, he rode I'll Have Another to victory for the same connections, owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill.
Gutierrez, 29, began his career riding quarter horse match races at the age of 14 in his native Veracruz, Mexico. He first came to the U.S. in 2005, later settled in at Hastings Park in British Columbia, Canada, then moved his tack to Southern California in 2011.
Gutierrez first caught O'Neill's attention the following winter and teamed up with I'll Have Another shortly thereafter. Despite his inexperience -- Gutierrez had never even been to Churchill Downs before stepping onto the track in preparations for his first Derby mount -- he calmly orchestrated a perfect trip for I'll Have Another to become the 42nd rider to win the race in his initial attempt.
On Saturday, Gutierrez returned to the scene of his finest hour a much more experienced rider, and once again he was flawless on racing's biggest stage.
"This Derby win is a little different than the first," Gutierrez said. "I'm a little more mature and a lot more confident now. I believe I'm doing things at this point that I didn't do four years ago. And I got all my confidence today from Nyquist."
Despite the expectations that come with riding an undefeated, 2-1 favorite as opposed to the 15-1 outsider I'll Have Another in 2012, Gutierrez again rode with the poise of a Derby veteran Saturday.
"I don't know how he does it," O'Neill said. "We were all nervous wrecks before the race, and he's got ice water in his veins. The trip was amazing. He's just so confident. And he never expects anything. He wants to earn everything he gets. He studies and puts a lot of effort into every race, and like today, it pays off."
Although Gutierrez had increased success on the very competitive Southern California circuit following his breakthrough win with I'll Have Another, his career has been star-crossed at times. Gutierrez has won just 247 races from the beginning of 2013 until Saturday, with only a dozen of those victories coming in graded stakes, seven of the 12 with Nyquist.
"Doug [O'Neill] has been amazing," Gutierriez said. "He never stopped believing in me, Mr. Reddam as well, when things weren't that great. They always stuck by me. They always had my back. To be able to win a second Derby for those guys, with this team, means so much to me. It's just amazing."
Gutierrez said Nyquist and I'll Have Another do share some similarities beyond just being Derby winners.
"They are both so calm, do everything so professional and are very mature at the same time, even though they have two very different running styles," Gutierrez said. "They are both great horses who gave me great confidence when I rode them. Today, everything went according to plan. I was 100 percent confident all the way around. I know he's good, he knows he's good. I just waited for the right moment. I knew Exaggerator was coming, but when Nyquist feels somebody coming, he just has another gear."
Gutierrez, whose wife, Rebecca, is expecting the couple's first child, said he hopes to ride for another 10 seasons.
"I don't want to stop here," he said. "I want to retire in 10 years and give the sport 100 percent of myself during that time."
And if Gutierrez can accomplish those goals over the next decade, for him, it would be, in a word, perfect.