NEW YORK (AP) — Mario Gutierrez will always be indebted to I'll Have Another for providing him the ride of a lifetime.
With Gutierrez secure and confident in the saddle, I'll Have Another galloped to thrilling victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. On each occasion, the strapping chestnut colt responded to the jockey's deft guidance by charging from the middle of the pack and overtaking Bodemeister with a brilliant stretch run.
Gutierrez and I'll Have Another were poised to make history together in the Belmont Stakes. And then, suddenly and shockingly, their symbiotic pairing was done in by a swollen tendon.
I'll Have Another's bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 ended Friday when owner Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill discovered the horse had developed tendinitis in his left front leg. They promptly scratched the horse from the Belmont and put him into retirement.
The news was devastating to Gutierrez, and it had nothing to do with missing an opportunity to put his name in the record books. Instead of cursing his luck, he expressed genuine gratification for being given the opportunity to be a part of something so grand.
"He hasn't done anything but give me all this happiness and all this success," Gutierrez said. "This just comes once in a lifetime. I feel the luckiest guy in the world to be a part of I'll Have Another."
Before O'Neill gave Gutierrez the opportunity to ride I'll Have Another, the 25-year-old jockey raced aboard thousands of thoroughbreds in Mexico and Canada. He will no doubt ride thousands more. But there will only be one I'll Have Another.
Fortunately, Gutierrez will get one more chance to settle into the saddle of his new best friend. Instead of riding I'll Have Another in the Belmont on Saturday, he will climb aboard one final time to lead the post parade before the race.
Gutierrez will then watch the race instead of competing in it. He won't be bitter about it, either.
"He was sad for the horse. Really," Reddam said. "He has just had a tremendous bonding with I'll Have Another, and his concern was 100 percent for the welfare of the horse. He expressed no disappointment for not getting the chance to run in the Belmont."
Mostly because riding I'll Have Another was a life-changing experience.
"I'll Have Another, for me, is amazing," Gutierrez said. "He just brought happiness to my life and the opportunity to share this unbelievable adventure with family and friends. He'll be my hero forever. I'm just glad that I was his jockey."
After learning of the horse's retirement, Gutierrez rode in five races at Belmont Park, most notably the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap aboard Boxeur des Rues, owned by Reddam and trained O'Neill. The Brooklyn was to be Gutierrez's first test at 1 1/2 miles, the same distance as the Belmont.
It didn't matter that his horse finished seventh, because it wasn't a tuneup for the Belmont after all.
After he dismounted and headed toward the jockey quarters, Gutierrez was mobbed by reporters and cameramen seeking to get his take on this cruel twist of fate.
He expressed hope that he could somehow experience success — if not the same level of happiness — aboard other horses.
"I'm going to keep working hard," Gutierrez said. "I don't want anybody to give me anything that I don't deserve."