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Affinity for anything is all in the mind, a matter of degree.
Grandiose obsession or mere admiration. Controlled emotion, or not. Tears, or no. All-knowing smugness about "your guy," or a healthy detachment.
Pete Rose the gambler. Tiger Woods the Lothario. Rae Carruth the murderer. Ray Lewis, the who-knows-what.
Teddy bears at the accident scene, only to have Streets and San clean up the next rainy night. Chalk on the bricks on Waveland or Sheffield, and the million-psi power washer stealing all that soul just hours later. Being told to get lost in an autograph request to a player you just knew you knew, and love(d). People just want to belong, to something.
You've got to be careful with all this.
So when I heard about the passing early this week of former jockey, former great, Garrett Gomez, the sadness simmered along with the memories and the question: What does this really mean to me?
The circumstances of his death are sorrow enough. He was reportedly found dead in a hotel room of a Tucson-area casino resort, apparently of a drug overdose. He had retired in 2015, but had last ridden in the fall of 2013, during the Keeneland meet. Turned out he was unable to hang on to what he did best.
Admittedly, I didn't put it together at the time. I had heard about his suspension for substance problems - they test if they think there's a problem, and even if they don't. I just figured he would be back. These are the toughest men and women, these jockeys.
Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith thought the same.
"I saw him a few months ago and I'll be honest, he looked as good if not better than I had ever seen him. I was really surprised to hear what happened," Smith said. "I remember walking away and thinking, 'Man, it's going to be about a year, maybe, and he'll be back.'"
Patrick Valenzuela had come back. And back and back and back too many times to count. Google it, he comes up second on the suspension search results. Even after shaving himself so as not to have a single hair available for analysis.
Willie Shoemaker was left a quadriplegic after a single-car DUI accident after he retired. Who knows what he went through during his racing days?
We can't count all of the suspensions at all the bull rings of racing.
But what of Gomez? What's he to you, TrackNotes?
I just remember him as a very solid rider way out west on the California circuit, who would, of course, come east for the big races. I remember never having to worry about getting a straight-up ride from him, unlike some others.
I'll bitch and moan about a Julien Leparoux, a Desormeaux, sometimes Rafael Bejarano and Patient (enough to finish second or third) Pat Day (both retired), Stewart Elliott, Martin Garcia, even Triple Crown hero Victor Espinoza. All very good riders who occasionally drive you to chewing and swallowing your tote ticket. And don't get me started on some of the stiffs at Arlington or Hawthorne.
Chicken/egg, Gomez was a good rider who got good horses and gave good rides.
After his native New Mexico and the California fair circuit, Gomez climbed a rung or two and moved to Ak-Sar-Ben (yes, that's backwards for Nebraska) and Fonner Park in the Cornhusker State.
In a day when Arlington Park still may have mattered, Gomez made some serious bones here, winning the Mid-America Triple of the American Derby, the Arlington Classic and his first Grade I, the Secretariat in 1997.
He did what guys like Pat Day, Robby Albarado, Earlie Fires, Shane Sellers, Calvin Borel, Randy Romero, Rene Douglas, the iconic Bill Hartack and Shoemaker, and going all the way back to the nearly mythical international legend Jimmy Winkfield himself did - ride Arlington to make a start, or make a living. Gomez stands at 16th at Arlington all-time, with 540 of his 3,771 career wins here. Lifetime, his purse winnings were $209,444,899.
We know now the Secretariat Stakes was just the start.
He won the Arkansas Derby back-to-back too, with Concern in 1994 and Dazzling Falls in 1995.
Hauling his tack west, Gomez splashed the coast with the Hollywood riding title in 1998, with wins in those early years in the Malibu, Santa Maria Handicap, Frank E. Kilroe Mile and Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap. He guided Bobby Frankel's Skimming back-to-back in the Pacific Classic, an important race he would win four times, in 2000-01. He was the rider of choice for Merv Griffin and his unlucky Stevie Wonderboy.
The demons entered him, hard, in 2003, when a series of arrests and other bad behavior caused him to miss that season. Unlike many sports, especially the bereft NFL, horse racing forces you to prove you're right, or you'll never hear the starting bell again. Anything less and riders and horses can get killed.
But right Gomez was as he returned in 2004 and dominated the mid-oughts as one of the best, if not the best, jockeys in the world. He never won a Triple Crown race, but he won every other race you or I could ever think of. Gaze at this list; it's epic.
Finally earning the healthy and sometimes comic cynicism any self-proclaimed horseplayer must possess, learning to pay attention, this is just about where I came in. Gazing so many past performances, Gomez G was all over the place in the top races. He won just about all of them. I always trusted him on a horse.
2007 Kentucky Oaks, aboard the ever sweet filly Rags to Riches, he filled in for an injured Johnny Velazquez, who would run Rags' to a Belmont Stakes win later that year over the magnificent Curlin.
He won the Travers in 2008 aboard Colonel John. The 2009 Santa Anita Derby on Pioneerof the Nile, the sire of American Pharoah. The 2006 Wood Memorial on Bob and John. 2007, Haskell, Any Given Saturday. Jockey Club Gold Cup, 2005, Borrego. Great great horses? Ultimately, no, but these wins made them in the breeding shed.
Gomez also rode Beholder, who thrilled us all just last month in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, to a win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
In 2008 and 2009, Gomez met his destiny aboard the successful, money-making knockabout, Blame, a horse who could spectacularly run 'em down or just as often finish second or third. Basically sharing the mount with Jamie Theriot, Gomez rode Blame in '09 to wins in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga and the Grade II Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.
In 2010, after wins in the Schaefer Handicap on Preakness Day and in the Stephen Foster at Churchill, Blame and Gomez finished a head in front of Quality Road, a horse whose name says it all and is one of my all-time favorite horses who never ran much.
Perhaps unknowingly, the stage was set for the ultimate showdown in the ultimate race. Introducing the Breeders' Cup Classic, starring Zenyatta.
As much as you can with a horse, Zenyatta had been carefully managed, to a perfect 19-0 record, beating up on many of the same horses in many of the same California races. Nevertheless, the huge mare was undefeated, having also won the Classic in 2009 over the ill-slotted turf specialist Gio Ponti.
America always wanting what it wants, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky bluegrass itself wilted when Blame, and Gomez, ran a brilliant, valiant race to upend Zenyatta, in probably the best race she ever ran.
Content to let four others duke it out, Gomez allowed Blame saner things, content to lead the second pack, a good seven lengths behind the leaders. As was her M.O., Zenyatta was a good six lengths dead last behind that. Her style was to lay back, way back, build up speed and momentum like the coal train she was, and nip 'em in the final hundred yards. Leaving nothing to chance, Gomez stayed on Blame, crafted the lead safely just at the head of the stretch, and when the big lady menaced and challenged about 12 lengths from the wire, Gomez and Blame said "not today." He won by a diminishing head.
Gomez excelled in the Breeders' Cup. An ultimate money rider, he won 13 times in 10 different Breeders' Cup events, right up there with Hall of Famers Jerry Bailey and Mike Smith. They included Artie Schiller in the Mile, Life Is Sweet in the Ladies Classic (Distaff), Midnight Lute back-to-back in the Sprint in 2007 and 2008. Indian Blessing (2007) and Beholder (2012) in the Juvenile Fillies.
They say in sports that all you really do is worship the laundry. It's a bit different with jockeys, because they'll Beyonce you seven times on a card with different silks for different owners.
With the hard helmets in football, the lumberjack beards in baseball and the pixie hats in hockey, it can get difficult to eyeball identify your heroes. NASCAR racing? Look for the chewing tobacco decal on the not-even-close-to-stock car hood.
With the pug-faced Mike Smith, crow-nosed Frenchman Leparoux, calm Gary Stevens, heartthrob Velazquez or baby-faced Javier Castellano, I've never had such a problem in racing. It gets even better when they approach the winners circle. Who doesn't know Euro legend Frankie Dettori's trademark leap off of all his winners?
But that's as close as I can get to thinking or saying I know these riders. I don't. All I know is what I see on the track, and Garret Gomez gave good, his best, in his races. He was rewarded with two Eclipse Awards and also won the prestigious George (Iceman) Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. He led the nation in earnings four times.
It's one thing to be able to hang on, balancing on the balls of your feet on narrow irons atop an unpredictable, amped up force of nature accelerating to 40 miles per hour in four strides. It's another to do it as well as anyone in the world.
His agent, Ron Anderson, provided some insight.
"I'm a big believer that obviously the guys I've been fortunate enough to represent - Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, Joel Rosario, Garrett - they have a sixth sense," Anderson said. "They have a sixth sense for the animal, and Garrett was a person that was so in tune with the idiosyncrasies of the animal and the tendencies of the animal."
There are a lot of cliches tossed around in times like these.
I'm glad he had a chance to experience so many happy times, so much success. I'm fortunate I had a chance to watch him. I won't forget him, his horses or his rides.
But if he was in such pain on this earth, might this be better for Garrett Gomez?
Nobody knows that answer, either.
Tom Chambers is our correspondent on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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Posted on Jun 17, 2019