As the momentum of Kentucky Derby fever builds like a huge tidal wave, racing fans have the potential to encounter new superstars. Stunning, three-year-old equine athletes coming on to the national scene vie for top honors and their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take home the roses.
The most exciting two minutes in sports will demand skill, grit and a strong heart of its young thoroughbreds. Superstar-like guidance from trainers and riders will give them the best chance for winning the top prize. It might not take a village, but it absolutely requires a vigilant partnership to win — and the rewards include a permanent stamp in the history of America’s greatest race.
The late Garrett Gomez, a dual Eclipse Award-winning rider never won the Kentucky Derby or a Triple Crown race. He finished second in the 2009 Derby aboard Pioneerof the Nile (who would sire 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah) and third in the 1994 Preakness Stakes with Concern. Instead, Gomez’s life of riding accomplishments and success took a different path and the partnerships he formed with horses on the racetrack were legendary.
He died this past December in a Tucson casino hotel room in the Arizona city where he had been born only 44 years prior, coming full-circle after a lifetime of world-wide competition. Having struggled with alcoholism and addiction throughout his riding career, some say his death was to be expected, others were shocked by it.
Such was the two-sided coin that has become his legacy.
Recent toxicology reports publicly revealed Gomez died of a methamphetamine drug overdose and a weakened heart. As a society, when we hear of such tragedies, we often express our disappointment of a life we perceive as having been wasted, with calloused comments, often bordering on disgust.
How could he do this? Why did he allow this to happen? Accomplishments are forgotten. Appreciation disappears.
We often expect a person with opportunity and talent to lead a temperate life, to resist the dark abyss of self-destruction and addiction, as if they have a responsibility to us spectators to live a life filled with heart and risk-taking that we are not often able to fathom taking for ourselves.
A jockey repeatedly stands on pieces of two-inch wide iron, while straddling a high-spirited thoroughbred horse weighing 1,200 pounds, often traveling at speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour. They do this while keeping their own weight as low possible, and maintaining a level of strength and fitness to convince the horses they ride each day that they can be trusted to keep that horse’s best interests at heart.
Horses can simply relax, abiding in a totally natural state, ideally running the way they were bred to run when a trusted rider has the reigns. Personally, I get nervous sometimes when simply straddling a coasting bicycle with my feet placed securely on pedals. And these are pedals that are much wider than a jockey’s iron stirrups.
I’m a chef and most people I know get anxious thinking about gaining five pounds from simply eating a cupcake. So how could any of us justifiably criticize a jockey’s choices? Our lives generally exclude the stringent disciplines and the considerable risks riders take for granted each day.
It’s widely acknowledged throughout the racing industry just how grueling the training and conditioning of a thoroughbred rider is. Jockeys are an elite group of athletes by any standard measure and only the truly special rise to the ranks of legend. In the only sport where athletes are followed by an ambulance while they compete, Gomez saw past his fears and focused his attention on guiding the horses he rode safely past the finishing wire, irrespective of how he might have been feeling physically that day.
To do this repeatedly takes a tremendous amount of heart. His consistent accomplishments required an otherworldly degree of mental and physical toughness — and he rose to that occasion more than 20,000 times during his career.
Since Gomez’s death in December, we have heard and read repeatedly about many of his career achievements. A record-breaker in race winning and earnings, Gomez’s ticker-tape of accomplishments skyrocketed during the years he was notably free of his addictions to both drugs and alcohol. So why not maintain that sobriety? Why not keep achieving? Why not live up to the expectations of others?
With almost 4,000 wins in a career that spanned 25 years, Gomez led the nation in purse earnings from 2006 through 2009. During his racing career, his mounts earned more than $205 million. He won Eclipse Awards in 2007, when he won a record 76 stakes races, and in 2008.
He’s credited with winning 13 Breeders’ Cup races, most notably handing the formidable Champion mare Zenyatta the only loss of her career when he won the 2010 Classic at Churchill Downs aboard Blame. He did so with two hairline shoulder fractures, diagnosed after the race. According to his former agent Ron Anderson, Gomez had been thrown from a horse two days prior to the race and took ibuprophen, while icing his shoulder, until he saw a doctor after capturing the big event.
During Gomez’s record-breaking, superstar, high-achievement years riding mainly at Santa Anita Park in Southern California, my own life was a juxtaposition of loss and struggle. I accepted a severance package from my employer after a 25-year career in banking and finance, which ultimately enabled me to spend a critical two-week period with my mother in Oklahoma.
They were to be her final days on Earth after having received a cancer diagnosis. Decades of abuse from cigarette smoking had taken its toll on her body and the results were, sadly, irreversible. I had the great fortune to live with her in her hospital room while she languished during her final days and to be present for random outbursts and deep, healing conversations that often occurred during late-night hours or in the wee hours of the morning.
“If you’re going to end it, do it with a high note!” She blurted at one point, her voice shrieking with passion as if trying to find the highest note her wavering vocal chords could find.
To say this, or to even behave this way, was completely uncharacteristic of my mom, and the words would ring in my ears repeatedly after her death only a few short days later. She was a gentle soul, with deep regrets of having not lived a bolder, more passionate life for herself and for her children. I did my best to reassure her of all the many reasons why her life had been meaningful and why she was a great mom. During that limited time, she alone encouraged me to pursue culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu.
I returned to California feeling lost and needing to move forward in a different way. In a grief-filled stupor, I struggled to find my way. I found solace in writing opportunities that entailed interviewing people at the racetrack. It was all about learning something new, being outside with nature and animals, and disappearing from the heavy feelings of grief and loss I was carrying.
One afternoon, I had the opportunity to interview Gomez.
I wasn’t very excited about it, really, because I had formed my own opinions about him before we ever met. I had decided he was arrogant and that he was remote and lacked warmth. I thought the interview would probably be boring because he was successful by every standard measure I could think of and it almost seemed like life was so easy for him, he essentially couldn’t lose.
But I was wrong.
Gomez was warm and had a calm friendliness that showed itself in kind eyes and a sort of crooked grin when he spoke. He was focused, polite and a complete professional. He blew me away with his candor and honesty.
When I asked him, after all his years of racing — of doing the same thing day after day after day — what held his interest, I was excitedly surprised by his answer. I thought he would list things like fame, money or just winning, but his response was much more complex than I imagined.
He told me there were a number of things that held his interest. People were unique and different and horses, especially, were unique and different. He enjoyed them both. And the moment he lived for on the racetrack was when he realized, after waiting patiently in traffic, that an opening was forming, a hole that he alone was seeing before any of his competitors had a chance to. It was often a split second of awareness, but he was present for it, and he would ask his horse to join him. Together they would push through the hole, often resulting in a win.
His professionalism and courtesy impressed me — and his intensity and enthusiasm engaged me. After talking with him, I couldn’t wait to look for the subtleties around the racetrack that he spoke about so fondly and to pay more attention to what the horses and riders were doing together on the racetrack.
The following week, I went to the FrontRunner restaurant and bar at Santa Anita racetrack to interview a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, who ultimately didn’t show. His absence turned out to be quite a blessing.
Now, with free time on my hands, I saw Steve Rothblum, an avid horseplayer (and currently assistant manager of Doug O’Neill’s barn) socializing with his buddy, fellow horseplayer Keith Moore at the bar. I borrowed their racing program to see which horses might be running to close out the day at Del Mar, which was being simulcast.
In the first leg of the late pick-3, I liked Spring House, the second choice at odds of 5-2. As I scanned the names of the horses in the second leg, there was a shipper from Hollywood Park. Jose Valdivia had the mount, and the horse was named High Note — my mom’s passionate declaration come-to-life on the racetrack.
In the final race of the day, the third leg of the wager, there was Garrett Gomez, riding a horse named Mobilized.
Without really thinking, I grabbed an old voucher from the bottom of my Coach bag and stuck it into the betting machine. I decided to bet $6, the entire voucher.
The bell rang and the gate opened seemingly simultaneously with my final ticket spitting out of the betting machine. Spring House won by a nostril.
When it came time for the finish of the second leg, it seemed I was the only person screaming and jumping up and down, but High Note crossed the wire first. Tears welled up in my eyes as I thought of my mom’s screeching cry in that Oklahoma hospital room.
Rothblum and Moore were surprised I had the horse in my exotic bet, but when they asked to see my ticket, complete shock seemed to set in as they realized I had singled the longshot. I didn’t know what “will pays” were, but I quickly learned when Keith showed me on the large screen that the wagering pools were saying that if Garret Gomez won on Mobilized in the final race of the day, I would win $1,700.20 for my $1 wager!
Then the pages of the Daily Racing Form and the betting sheets started flipping back and forth as the veteran handicappers applied their analytical experience to the race information and concluded that Mobilized, showing at 13-1 on the tote board, could, in fact, win the race! They loaded up on him and began talking about the possibilities being even greater for a win because Gomez was in the irons.
I watched the race with one foot on a wrung of each of Keith’s and Steve’s bar stools, perched in the center as if to be straddling a horse myself. I was riveted to the monitor and I felt as if I had the best seat in the house. I watched intently as the horses broke from the gate and Gomez got the young horse to relax. It was as if I was watching his very words from the interview come alive on the track. Horse and rider sat patiently off the pace. The opening appeared and I saw them together, jet right through it as if I was watching a film in slow motion. The hole closed and Mobilized was out front to greet the wire first.
I couldn’t believe it! The real shock to my companions, though, came when I produced six winning tickets and not just one. The handicappers were amazed that I had used just one horse in every leg.
It was a real miracle. Unemployed one minute, headed for culinary school to become a chef the next. Garrett Gomez changed my life for the better in immeasurable ways. He’s had to have done the same for many others as well.
When I held my mom in my arms as she took her final labored breaths, I didn’t think about the cigarettes that caused her death. I thought about the lullabies she sang, her beautiful hands, kind smile, gentle ways and the taste of her potato salad. I thought about the way she enjoyed sweeping the floor and making jewelry and drinking her coffee every morning. I remembered her laughter and so many other amazing things about her.
When I heard the news about Gomez dying, I didn’t think about drugs or alcohol and what a shame his death was. I thought about the celebration his life was.
I remembered the connection between him and my mom and me. I remembered that very special race, our wonderful conversation and so many other great things about him. I wondered about the thousands of other people his life of riding had touched. I felt a deep gratitude for all that he was. Gomez demonstrated so much heart on the racetrack; it’s no wonder his seemed to have worn out at such a young age.
It’s easy to criticize someone for their choices when we feel grief and sadness. But Garrett Gomez gave so much to horse racing and to life in general that he deserves far better than that. To choose a lifetime so rich with an understanding of each side of God’s coin, takes a lot of heart and courage. Gomez had that in spades. He embraced both the highs and the lows of the industry he loved with equal grace. He lived a full life on the racetrack and off.
I imagine the opening he must have innocently seen while lying in a drug-induced stupor, and how he might have lunged for the light, thinking he would emerge victorious, once again returning to the life, people and horses he loved.
But, this time, the hole closed behind him for good. There was no way back. He had accidentally gone too far and who would possibly understand that?
I never got the chance to thank Gomez for what he did for me. I’m sure countless other people have life-changing race stories too and he probably would have enjoyed hearing them.
It’s never too late to express appreciation, though, so to Garrett Gomez I say: “Thank you, with all of my heart.”