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Horse Racing

Gomez Is Riding High Since Pulling Career Out of Hat

Santa Anita: Jockey had fallen on hard times before hooking up with Hacek. He won on 25% of his mounts last year.

January 23, 1998|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having conquered Chicago, jockey Garrett Gomez and his agent, Harry "the Hat" Hacek, blew into town on Halloween. So far in Southern California, no tricks and a few treats, which is a better box score than the last time Gomez tried the demanding local circuit.

That would have been the summer of 1994, and on opening day at Del Mar the stewards, after disqualifying one of his mounts, handed Gomez a five-day suspension, costing him a high-profile mount on Concern.

"I had been Concern's regular rider," Gomez said. "At the time I got those days at Del Mar, Concern was going to run in a race back East. I couldn't ride him because of the suspension, and then I lost the mount."

Three months later, with Jerry Bailey in the saddle, Concern won the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

"The whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth," Gomez said. "It came at a time when everything I did was wrong."

Gomez, who turned 26 on New Year's Day, shook off the loss of Concern, a 1995 divorce and time in rehabilitation for alcohol abuse and won 307 races last year, most of them at Chicago tracks. His winning mark of 25.1%--307 wins in 1,222 races--ranked him third nationally, behind Russell Baze and Edgar Prado, who led the country with 535 wins. Baze, who won 420 races, booted home 28.3% of his mounts.

Gomez and Hacek had talked about a California migration in 1999, but when Arlington International, its business devastated by a flotilla of riverboat casinos, closed down for this year, they decided to head west right away.

"This time, I'm real positive about coming out here," Gomez said. "I'm going to do everything I can to show that I'm here to stay. My fiancee [Cheryl Morgan] and I have a townhouse about a mile from Santa Anita. As long as I can pay the rent, I'll stay."

Horses like Star's Proud Penny, The Exeter Man and Fleet Lady are taking care of the rent. Star's Proud Penny, at 33-1, won the $200,000 Miesque Stakes under Gomez in late November at Hollywood Park. And at Santa Anita, he has won the $106,700 El Conejo Handicap with The Exeter Man and the $161,400 El Encino with Fleet Lady. He got the El Encino victory after the stewards took down the number of I Ain't Bluffing, the first-place finisher. The equalizer for those costly five days at Del Mar was a long time coming.

Bobby Frankel trains Star's Proud Penny and The Exeter Man.

"I saw [Gomez] ride a few times in Chicago last year," Frankel said. "None of the top jocks were available for the Miesque, so I gave him the mount. He rode the filly perfectly, and he's gotten four or five calls from me since then and he hasn't made any mistakes. He gets horses in the right spot to let them run. He's an excellent rider."

Gomez was even money to be a jockey. Louie Gomez, his father, rode for about 20 years, mostly at tracks in New Mexico, Nebraska and Arkansas. At 46, he has been retired only a few years.

The younger Gomez was born in Arizona and grew up in New Mexico. He was riding bulls and galloping horses as a teenager, and on his fourth mount he rode his first winner--Furlong Circle, a 5-year-old gelding--at Santa Fe Downs in 1988. He has ridden in a few races against his father.

Garrett Gomez has spent almost a decade criss-crossing the country, seldom anchoring anywhere. When Kent Desormeaux, now a fixture in California, was winning a record 598 races in Maryland in 1989, Gomez was at Pimlico and Laurel, just finishing up his apprenticeship.

Name a Midwest track and Gomez has probably ridden there. His personal highlights include consecutive wins in Oaklawn Park's Arkansas Derby, with Concern and Dazzling Falls in 1994-95, and sweeping Arlington's Mid-America Triple series with Honor Glide last year. Before Gomez, Pat Day was the only jockey to have won the Arkansas race in consecutive years, and Honor Glide was the first horse to win the three Arlington races since Tom Rolfe in 1965.

Hours after his 20-1 upset win with Concern in the Arkansas Derby, Gomez left his parents in Hot Springs, climbed into his sport-utility vehicle and made the 10-hour, 625-mile trip to Lexington, Ky., where he won the Lexington Stakes with Southern Rhythm. That gave him two important victories in about 24 hours. Two weeks after the Lexington, Southern Rhythm finished seventh for Gomez in the Kentucky Derby.

"By the time I won the race with Southern Rhythm at Keeneland, the Arkansas Derby seemed like it had happened about a week before," Gomez said.

The nirvana of 1994--134 wins, horses that earned $4.1 million--was negated by 1995, when Gomez, his drinking a problem and his marriage falling apart, announced that he was quitting. His weight ballooned from 114 to 130 pounds. He was going in the direction of his younger brother, a teenager who weighs 180.

"Those were hard times," Gomez says now. "I missed riding real bad, but I had to step away from it and start all over again. I knew [the trainers and horse owners] would be leery of using me when I came back."

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