In three weeks, all eyes in the thoroughbred racing world will be focused on Saratoga Springs, New York, and the Hall of Fame Museum building located on Union Avenue just across from Saratoga Racetrack where a select group of the best of the best in the Sport of Kings will be forever enshrined and recognized as among the greatest ever.
In addition to three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile (GIT) winner Goldikova, Triple Crown winner Victor Espinoza and four-time Eclipse Award-winner Javier Castellano will stand at the podium and be recognized for careers which have surpassed the extraordinary, and it’s a good bet each will emotionally thank those who helped make it possible — family, friends, horsemen and the horses themselves.
Unfortunately, the fourth honoree won’t be there.
Jockey Garrett Gomez passed away at age 44 from a drug overdose in a Tucson, Arizona, Indian casino hotel room on Dec. 14 — just months before realizing the career goal he himself held as the Holy Grail. How his actual induction presentation will go remains a mystery, as the Hall of Fame is currently working with the grieving family members he left behind. But one thing is certain: the tragedy of a promising and talent-filled life left incomplete still resonates deeply with the people who loved him most, especially his widow Pam and his four children, Collin, Shelby, Jared and Amanda, and his absence at his own induction (he was selected the fifth time he was nominated) will be palpable.
Pam Gomez has never been immune to the gossip that constantly and consistently followed her deceased husband’s life both on and off the racetrack or the fact that some of it bled into questions about their marriage, but after spending nearly two decades together she says she is past defending him or their relationship and is focused on raising her two children (Jared and Amanda) while hoping that sharing the story of their marriage will help other racetrack families in crisis.
During their darkest days, both individually and as a couple, Garrett and Pam relied heavily on the Winners Foundation, an organization located in a small building just outside the back stable gate at Santa Anita Park. The Winners Foundation is an organization offering confidential assistance to members of the Southern California horseracing community and their families both in formal recovery programs, as well as continuing support via information and counseling services.
Pam says that after Garrett started working with the Winners Foundation in the mid-2000s, he experienced his longest period of sobriety and what she says was his happiest times.
Unfortunately, most tracks don’t have facilities like the Winners Foundation, so Pam hopes that opening up some of the details of her life with Garrett will help not only other racetrack families in crisis, but also shine a light on the need for similar resources at tracks across the country.
“If I ever use drugs and alcohol, get out. Take our kids, however many we have, and run. Don’t walk, run.”
Pam Gomez remembers Garrett’s words that day as if it were yesterday even though he said them just before they got married on June 1, 1999. At that point, the pair had been dating for a couple of years and after she finally agreed to a wedding after losing a hole during a round of golf, her groom-to-be got frighteningly real with her for the first time in their relationship. Though she’d seen a hint of it before briefly when they first started dating and she dragged him home — in a drunken stupor — out of a Las Vegas hotel, their courtship had been substance-free. At the time of their wedding and when she made her pact with her husband, Pam had no idea how prophetic those words would turn out to be.
“He told me not to listen to a word he said unless he was sober,” Pam recalled of that day. “And he meant it. At first, it scared me, but, looking back, I don’t think he was ever more serious about anything as long as we were together. He said he wanted me to be something he had to fight to get back to. I agreed, of course, but I had no idea what I was agreeing to, really, or how that pact would affect the rest of my life.”
After their wedding, Pam and Garrett lived in what she describes as “mostly” marital bliss for a couple of years and, before long, the pair welcomed their first child together, a son they named Jared. Not long after, Pam was expecting their second child, a daughter to be named Amanda, and she admits she could not have enjoyed her time with her young family more. Her husband was atop the Southern California jockey standings and the financial rewards helped them purchase their first home together and they both remained focused on their family.
It was at this time that Garrett scheduled a mini-vacation to Mexico with some other jockeys and the cracks started to reveal themselves. That plan, Pam remembers, was her first glimpse at how bad things could really be.
“[Fellow jockey] Alex [Solis] called and told me Garrett didn’t show up in Mexico,” Pam remembers. “He had been a little off for a few months, I noticed that, but he was golfing a lot and still present, so I didn’t think too much of it.
“But when Alex said, ‘Pammy, I think we have a problem,’ I knew. I instantly packed up the house and my belongings and got out of there. I was panicking, but that was the deal I made with him. And it was the first time I realized the pact was the biggest gift he would ever give me to protect me.
“I found out quickly that he was two totally different people — the good guy who was sober and loved me and our family and the bad guy who was an addict. I literally had to hide at our friends’ houses and he always showed up. We’d call the police and it happened so many times the police actually knew him. And because basically everything we owned was in my name because he was afraid if he was using he’d blow it all when I’d protect it, once I gave the police permission to open the trunk and they found the drugs and arrested him. I was so grateful because finally he had to face his problems and I knew it would get him to rehab.”
Following that arrest, Pam says, Garrett entered and checked himself out of more than a dozen rehab centers within just a few months without ever managing to stay sober. However, thanks to pending drug charges in Los Angeles and Pasadena, he was arrested in mid-2003 in a Temecula, California, casino and subsequently spent 40 days in jail on several warrants for drug possession and paraphernalia and failure to appear.
That incarceration became a turning point that led to Garrett’s longest stint sober.
Pam says that soon after being released from jail, Garrett reached out to the Winners Foundation for the first time and, before long, Garrett was clean and healthy and riding every day and spending a lot of time enjoying his family. Things weren’t perfect, Pam recalls, but Garrett was present and had never been more successful in his career, riding in all the big stakes races around the country.
“I think without the Winners Foundation, Garrett would have died then,” Pam explains. “We both leaned heavily on them and everyone was there for us without question. I’m not so sure I’d have made it without the Winners Foundation, to be honest, and I know Garrett wouldn’t have.”
At the time, the only sign of the obsessive-compulsive behavior indicative of his drug use that remained was his overwhelming need to always be what Pam describes as “better.” It wasn’t enough for Garrett to win a race and watch the replay of his own wins, he watched every race and every trip from other jockeys and their mounts every day. It became a family ritual to watch replays every night after dinner.
“He couldn’t shut it off,” Pam said. “But it kept him focused and that kept him sober, which was a good thing.”
In 2006, sitting as Southern California’s top jockey, Garrett briefly relocated to the East Coast to ride first-call for trainer Todd Pletcher after the trainer’s go-to jockey, John Velazquez, broke his shoulder blade. While the East Coast opportunities were exceptional and Garrett won a lot of races and earned a lot of money, Pam said he missed his family and his children, who remained on the West Coast. Though they eventually purchased a home in New York, by the end of the year was back in Southern California again riding for the state’s biggest stables.
“We did the best we could to spend as much time together as a family then,” Pam remembers. “Even when he was in New York he flew home a lot on the dark days to see us when we weren’t there visiting him. And every time he left to go back I know it broke his heart. I had young children starting school and a life here [in California]; we agreed uprooting our family wasn’t a good idea. And being alone wasn’t good for him. I know he was tempted, but he didn’t stumble. And I was proud of him — so proud.”
By that point their daughter Amanda had also become a fledgling equestrian, riding before she could walk, and Pam says Garrett could not have been more excited to share that bond with her. It was something that father and daughter shared until his death, despite the addiction, and until the end of his life he regularly showed anyone and everyone who was around photos on his phone of Amanda riding.
Not long thereafter, Gomez embarked on what Pam describes as the work he was most proud of outside of his accomplishments in the saddle. Teaming up with award-winning author Dr. Rudy Alvarado, Garrett painfully and emotionally opened his soul and spent months telling his life story in a memoir he titled “The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey’s Journey Through Addiction and Salvation.”
Though Garrett knew a lot of people and had a ton of fans, Pam said he didn’t let a lot of people get close. He didn’t have a lot of friends to share his secrets with, so she saw how cathartic it was for Garrett to pour his soul into the book. He really believed his story would help people and he pledged every penny he made from sales to the Winners Foundation in gratitude for helping him through his darkest days. The only problem, Pam says, was that, though sober when writing the book, by the time it was published in mid-2012 Garrett had already slipped back into addiction and she was the only one who knew…
(In Part II, Pam Gomez discusses the racetrack injury that indirectly led to the end of Garrett Gomez’s riding career and, ultimately, his life.)