I had the great fortune to be one of only 20 photographers allowed access to shoot Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, one of the three jewels in horse racing’s Triple Crown.
How is that possible for a small daily newspaper?
It is a result of connections made through decades of covering the sport at Saratoga Race Course and elsewhere. Living for 25 years in that city, which is crazy about its horse racing, didn’t hurt either.
I actually was officially credentialed for Horsephotos.com, a photo wire service. The Finger Lakes Times benefits from that relationship.
The day, because of the coronavirus pandemic and New York City still being part of only Phase 1 reopening, was nothing short of weird.
One of the highlights, however, was seeing a local kid doing well.
Reyluis Gutierrez is from Farmington, and at age 23 was assigned to be the jockey for Jungle Runner, the longest shot on the board for the Belmont Stakes (pictured).
It was his first ever mount in a Classic or Grade I race and what would be a dream, starting in a Triple Crown event, for thousands of other jockeys.
As someone who thinks he knows what’s going on in thoroughbred horse racing, I have to admit it was a Facebook friend who alerted me on Friday to the fact that Rey was from our area.
Thanks Pat DeBolt.
Rey graduated from Victor High School and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Cortland. It is unusual for a jockey to delay a riding career for college because, by age 21, so many riders already have spent years on the backstretch exercising horses, working for trainers, getting to know the business and establishing owner and trainer relationships. In some ways it can be playing catchup with the odds of making it to the top level being astronomical.
Rey was born in Hallandale, Florida within a few miles of Gulfstream Park Racetrack.
After moving to this area and while growing up in Farmington, he could see the local track from his home. You could say horse racing is literally in his blood. He is the son of trainer Luis Gutierrez and the nephew of jockey Jose Gutierrez. Eventually Rey would ride about 70 races here. Right now he lives in Elmont and can also see Belmont Park from his home.
With help from his uncle Jose, Rey fully committed to the sport and journeyed to Florida to compete against many of racing’s best.
It was far from easy. New jocks don’t get many mounts, and those that do are not likely to be guiding one of the betting favorites.
The tides turned in the summer of 2018 when most of the top jockeys headed to New York and Kentucky for those lucrative meets. Not only did Rey begin to get regular rides in Florida but he won races just about every day.
He earned enough wins to land a nomination for a 2018 Eclipse award for apprentice (rookie) jockeys. Gutierrez made 843 starts and won 109 races in 2018, earning more than $3.3 million (his share is 10%).
In 2019, he would win his first graded stakes aboard Do Share in the Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct Racetrack.
That same year, I photographed him here coming in second in the New York Derby aboard Not That Brady, a New York-bred that was briefly on the trail toward the Kentucky Derby.
As far as Jungle Runner, Rey was working him in the morning for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen for the Belmont when he was shocked and happy to learn he was assigned as the rider.
Though Jungle Runner (in my opinion a horrible name, by the way) came in last in the Belmont, it was not unexpected. In each of its prior two races the colt finished 22 lengths behind the winner. The horse has only one win in its career and that was last year.
Rey says the race was run very much to form as every rider seemed to be positioned early on where they wanted. With no fans and with jockeys silent, it was relatively and oddly quiet. He says he got a good trip and was aware of the inside bias on the track but when everyone else went from 4th gear to 5th turning for home, his horse seemed stuck in 4th gear.
But now that the Belmont Stakes is in the books, in a year that is bizarre in so many ways, Rey is a part of American racing history having been on the biggest of stages. His response about participating? “It was an honor.”
Rey has moved his tack to New York where he has been riding regularly at Aqueduct and Belmont getting three sometimes five mounts per race card. He will be heading to Saratoga for its summer meet.
The thoroughbred racing industry can be a tough place to make a good living. Maybe that is why Rey’s parents told him, “You’ve got to bring us your four-year degree, then we’ll push you to reach your [jockey] dreams.”
Sage advice on many levels.