Immediate boarding: how jockey Reylu Gutierrez performs his flight
At the end of 2020, a phone call led to a partnership. Jockey Reylu Gutierrez was in trouble. In three short years, roaring like a jumbo jet landing at JFK, he traveled from his hometown of Finger Lakes to the New York Racing Association tracks of Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga Raceway. People knew him in the Empire State, so he played a home game every parade.
“I loved having a cheer section,” Gutierrez said with his infectious smile. “I never knew which of the 11e The note would appear.
Although he won his first race at Saratoga at the famed meet, victories on the tough circuit were non-existent in November. When you lose, sometimes you need what Gutierrez describes as a “reset.” That’s when Jose Santos Jr. rang.
The jockey agent was making moves with an expanding client list, and the pair had a lot in common…age, a sense of work ethic and humor, and a willingness to fly on hold . Gutierrez was the trainer’s son, while Santos’ father was a famous rider. It was a good game.
Traditionally, jockeys stay put during what are called “meetings”, and the duration can vary from one month (Keeneland) to several (NYRA tracks). The members of the colony serve partly as a support system and partly as a hostile environment. Everyone is chasing what is called a riding title…a coveted prize that can lead to future opportunities. The rivalries go with the territory, but in this era there is a fair amount of transience as the jockeys come and go regularly, especially when the stakes action is carded. Large barns “ship”, competing for purse money in “ungraduated” and “graduated” races. These correspond to class levels, which are based on the type of competition a rider is used to.
In 2021, Santos wanted Gutierrez to change course (gear) – New York was over for now. “Jose is like an older brother, and so he picked me up on December 28, and we drove and drove, from New York to Texas,” he said.
The target was Sam Houston Race Park, then Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie. Gutierrez had an aggressive style from the start, which continues to be his signature. He rode well, but that bad New York taste in his mouth lingered. “I was riding with a chip on my shoulder last year,” admitted Gutierrez. “I’m a New Yorker, and I had to leave…it didn’t sit well with me, but I needed to understand that this was a business.”
Santos was the kingpin and he knew that college-educated Gutierrez still needed time to mature. The jockey calls this “mental patience”, which is honed. He has taken over the management of Santos, as the dates for 2021 have moved on the calendar. It was not easy. After that Texas swing, he took gold in September’s Pocahontas Stakes race at Churchill Downs aboard a Bret Calhoun-trained filly named Hidden Connection. It was a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” race, and Gutierrez won his first trip to the big event to be held in Del Mar in November. Top class horses at Churchill Downs followed, and the couple turned their attention to the showground, which opened just before December.
New Orleans seemed to fit, since established barns overwinter there. Two-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox, along with Calhoun, Tom Amoss, Al Stall and a host of other accomplished conditioners go head-to-head at Fair Grounds. The plan was to start traditional, with a sprinkling of Oaklawn Park frames that were generously donated by trainer John Ortiz, but there would also be a new component. With a travel agent ready, it was time to take his game on the road.
Over the course of eight months, no other racer in America would try 18 tracks…and counting. This represents 18 different jockey rooms, paddocks, surfaces and winner’s circles.
“I know the flight schedules and all the Delta lounges,” Gutierrez said with a smile. “I could work in the office at the door operating the emergency board.” Every weekend, you can find Gutierrez at 10,000 feet, racking up frequent flyer miles in the air and miles on the trail. It’s a challenge though, especially with those pesky cancellations and connecting flights. “That’s where the mental patience is tested,” Gutierrez said calmly, “I don’t always get to a track early so I can follow my pre-game routine.”
In addition to competing in real races, jockeys also “work” horses for trainers, as this can help maintain physical fitness and is key to relationships. Currently, Gutierrez is located at Ellis Park in Kentucky, but he also rides regularly at Horseshoe Indianapolis and Colonial Downs. A recent weekend blitz saw him at Remington Park on a Friday night in Oklahoma City, to FanDuel Sportsbook and Racing for the St. Louis Derby on Saturday, then back to Ellis on Sunday. Exercising a trainer’s horses is equally important, so he got up at 4 a.m. to work a set for Calhoun, Cox and Randy Morse; thus, pushing back his flight to Oklahoma City.
“Jose reminds me of the balance I need,” Gutierrez said. “I think that’s key when you’re at airports and things don’t go your way.”
Like any business traveler, you have to stay flexible.
Gradually, Reylu Gutierrez’s approach changed. The riding opportunities for the likes of Shortleaf Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds have arrived. This year he made appearances in the Pegasus World Cup and along the Kentucky Derby Trail. He rode Hidden Connection in the Longines Kentucky Oaks and Ortiz’s Barber Road in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. Professionalism and patience are key.
“This schedule is not for all young jockeys, I’ve learned to pack over the past year…no extra socks…stay light,” Gutierrez said with a laugh. With over 540 starts and counting, The New Yorker has harnessed that sense of failure to work in his favor. “I’m going to build where I am,” Gutierrez said, “I adapt on the fly, literally.” There’s nothing easy about navigating an airport – advance calls, delays, cancellations, connections – it’s like life around a racetrack.