Mario Gutierrez and Manuel X: A Tale of Two Immigrants

Preparations at Vancouver’s Hastings Race Track are underway for the televised broadcasting of the 144th Belmont Stakes in New York this Saturday, June 9. Once a racist internment camp during World War II, the Hastings track has since been transformed into a free haven for ruling class corporate interests, profitably linked to the Vancouver gambling economy. Noticeably, not a single historic plaque is mounted at the site to commemorate the unjust imprisonment of Japanese Canadians of that era.

Instead, on Saturday, a forty-foot screen will be mounted on the Hastings Track infield projecting a live simulcast of the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel of the Triple Crown, to thousands of bettors and horse racing fans in attendance. The star attraction for most Canadian and global media outlets is I’ll Have Another, a three-year old thoroughbred colt who has already won the prestigious Kentucky Derby (the first jewel), the Preakness Stakes (second jewel) in May, and now vies to snatch the always elusive Belmont Stakes to make I’ll Have Another the first U.S. Triple Crown winner in the 21st century.

I’ll Have Another’s rider, Mario Gutierrez, could become the first non-white, immigrant and Mexican jockey in horse racing history to win the Triple Crown. Not since Affirmed was helmed in 1978 by the legendary American jockey Steve Cauthen have horse, rider, trainer and owner combined to win one of sport’s most coveted and lucrative honours.

Significantly, I’ll Have Another is owned by financial and mortgage investor, J. Paul Reddam, a Windsor, Ontario-born Canadian and former university philosophy professor who now resides in a multimillion dollar seafront mansion in the exclusive Sunset Beach community of Southern California. Little known to most Vancouverites and largely overlooked by most American and Canadian print, radio, t.v. and social media (including the locally-based progressive Georgia Straight), is Reddam’s unsavory reputation as a high-stakes corporate gambler, and in particular his previous majority ownership of the unscrupulous company Ditech.

In 2000, Ditech was indicted and criminally prosecuted for “loan sharking tactics” and “defrauding home mortgage holders” by the United States Attorney General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.). This sting operation resulted in Reddam selling Ditech to General Motors in what the Courier-Journal termed an “undisclosed sum, but let’s just call it a truckload.” Now, as president of CashCall, a billion dollar subprime mortgage lender, payday and loan finance company, Reddam continues to profit from the same crooked tactics. As the Los Angeles Times noted last month, “critics say Reddam has unfairly capitalized on people’s financial woes during the economic and employment crisis.”

Anticipating that millions may be wagered on I’ll Have Another’s last run on Saturday at Belmont, the Times goes on to remark, “J. Paul Reddam might not be the type of businessman for whom people suffering through the recession can bring themselves to root for.”  The corruption probes, however, don’t end with the privileged Reddam.

Doug O’Neill, the notorious American horse trainer of I’ll Have Another, was recently suspended for 45 days by the California Horse Racing Board for giving performance-enhancing drugs to racing colts this season. O’Neill won’t start his suspension until after the Belmont Stakes, the wrist-slapping Board ruled several weeks ago, despite O’Neill’s multiple offending history in horse doping.

It is telling but perhaps not surprising to discover O’Neill’s paternalistic attitude towards his horse prodigy. In the Daily Racing Forum (May 19, 2012), O’Neill racistly compares his animal prodigy with an African-American basketball star: “It’s probably like being a Lebron James’s family member, watching him run up and down the court.” O’Neill’s subtle but no less racist comparison cannot help but remind us of a tragic chapter in American history when former 1936 Olympic gold medal winner Jessie Owens, a superb and gifted African-American athlete, was shunned by Hitler at the Berlin Games for defeating Nazi Germany’s Aryan athletes. When Owens returned months later to the U.S. he continued to be excluded, couldn’t find work or corporate sponsors and was destitute with no means to support his family. He got help from law firm for chapter 7 bankruptcy case filing and was forced to compete against thoroughbred race horses in stadiums. Owens once said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? You can’t eat four gold medals.”

The “Discovery” of Gutierrez

What is most notable about this Triple Crown tale-in-the-making is the narrative formed around the “discovery” and sponsorship of Gutierrez himself. Glenn Todd of White Rock, British Columbia (a nearly all-white suburban enclave of Vancouver according to the latest census count in Statistics Canada) was Mario Gutierrez’s legal sponsor and adopted father-mentor in Canada. Todd, according to most press reports, was responsible for “discovering” this untapped, underdeveloped third world talent on the horse racing circuit while on a leisure vacation in Mexico City. Though Gutierrez has consistently acknowledged the influence of Todd in shaping him as rider in many Canadian interviews, very little comparable print in Canada has been devoted to disclosing the pivotal influence Gutierrez’s Mexican father played throughout his life.

Gutierrez, before he was signed and migrated to “first world” Canada with Todd, was a nineteen-year-old kid who grew up in a farming village in Veracruz, Mexico with his extended family. Here in Canada, as the master narrative informs, Mario was literally saved by industrious white male trainers who knew how to harness the little Mexican’s talent. He became a small-scale mining expedition that could gush gold.

Nowhere in this Canadian tale is there a hint of self-awareness about this racialized narrative. A forgotten footnote, perhaps, in most Triple Crown news coverage is how Mario’s father, Mario Guiterrez, Sr., a former professional jockey on the Mexican racing circuit, taught his twelve-year-old apprentice son to ride quarter horses in competition with fearlessness. In fact, it was his veteran jockey father, not Todd, O’Neill or Reddam, who convinced Mario that he could ride with the best in North America.

To date, neither of Mario’s parents have watched him win these jewel races in the United States. When Mario won the Kentucky Derby in Louisville last month, Mario’s parents weren’t generously travel-sponsored or granted costly tourist visas by the Canadian government, nor did the affluent Reddam and company ante up either. Instead, Mario’s parents watched their son win on an internet hook up in that same farming village in Veracruz, Mexico. Here in multilingual Vancouver no local or national press has, to my knowledge, ever bothered to interview his parents.

This story, of course, continues to be told, unfolds and redefines itself as a heroic white male trio tale. The trio ultimately rescued the talent of a young, ambitious jockey who would have languished back home. If not for these Canadian pioneers taking a big risk on Mario Gutierrez, he might never have become an English-speaking household name in Vancouver.

To be fair to Canadian sport enthusiasts, there are similar sordid corollaries in American sports: major league baseball scouts sign-up brawly talented teenage pitchers in the Dominican Republic; boxing Hall of Fame trainer Cus D’Amato finds Mike Tyson in a juvenile detention facility, adopts him, and then takes the fifteen-year-old to live with his family in the Catskill Mountains, producing history’s youngest heavyweight champion.

What began as a Canadian sponsored apprenticeship for jockey Gutierrez – with over two thousand races and boasting a twenty-four percentage win at the Hastings Race track, with over $7.7 million in earnings for owners – has now become a full-fledged Vancouver folk legend, with Gutierrez on the world’s biggest professional stage, riding to win the fabled Triple Crown.

This neo-Dickensian tale was driven, if you were to believe Canadian and American media hype, by the overwhelming generosity of a mythic, pioneering and all white-male cast of good-hearted trainers, investors and the owner himself, Reddam. Gutierrez has been remade into a made-for-television miniseries and is now a Canadian product that we can all be proud to purchase.

The Thread of Migrant Labour

Not to be lost in this corporatized bonanza is the lucrative killing made so far on I’ll Have Another’s success. If the horse wins the Triple Crown, the owner’s breeding rights will raise the roof like rare stocks and be sold to multimillion-dollar bidders for generations to come. Gutierrez, of course, won’t see a dime of that action, mirroring the billions pumped into the Canadian economy annually by unrepresented migrants and their labour. Most jockeys get a mere pittance of big purses, not to mention television revenue or commercial sales of marketing products. This is usually how horse racing ends.

For Manuel X, a spanish speaking Mexican immigrant who wasn’t sponsored by a wealthy Canadian horse owner or a Vancouver trainer, the story hasn’t been edited for a happy ending. Most immigrant stories have a thousand different twists and cuts to them and don’t usually follow script. Manuel X, a forty-two year old janitor who labours at a residential hotel in Vancouver, is a non-unionized, undocumented Mexican immigrant worker paid twelve dollars an hour. “After taxes, it comes to ten loonies,” he says reservedly, brushing back nostril sweat while politely complaining of an irritating body rash contracted cleaning up bed bugs and dumping loads of trash. “I thought Canada would be different than the United States, where discrimination is terrible,” he tells me pushing his wet mop. “I was wrong,” he says, signaling that he has said too much.

Despite payroll tax deductions and daily sales tax paid from his meager monthly cheque for the last five years, Manuel is not eligible for Canadian health insurance or a drivers’ licence. Manuel has never enrolled in English classes because he’s always worked two shifts to wire money back home. But, he gestures with his unattended hand, he has accessed services at a medical clinic for uninsured patients when his eczema and persistent body rash become intolerable.

His female cousin, Socorro, himself and another Mexican immigrant are the only other undocumented janitors employed by the privately owned company. His son, Manuel, Jr., 19, also undocumented and uninsured, works in Vancouver’s condo construction industry and day-dreams of returning to Jalisco, Mexico someday to study business management. Both father and son live in an unaffordable studio apartment in East Vancouver that is “cramped and mouldy,” Manuel reveals. “The place is the size of a horse stable”, he concludes, measuring the width with his short hands.

I asked Manuel if he’ll go out to the Hastings horse track on Saturday to watch Mario Gutierrez race for the Triple Crown. He gives me a puzzling look and blurts out, “Who is he?”