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A Long Ride Home

Jockey Garrett Gomez battles back from addiction to rebuild his career and return to his wife and children

November 23, 2005|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

It has been his greatest year -- purses of more than $13 million, two wins and a second on the Breeders' Cup card, 26 stakes victories and a total of 229 wins as one of the country's hottest and most coveted jockeys, and all of that, said Garrett Gomez, is strictly a bonus, an interpretation hard to dispute.

After all, when drugs and alcohol have been the morning-line favorites for half your life, when the roller coaster is about to crash and you spend 40 consecutive days in jail and don't ride for 21 months, and when your wife is waiting for the divorce papers and certain the next call will be from a crack house or morgue, there's a crushing need to reprioritize, to somehow get the help enabling you to become husband and father first, jockey second.

After all, wasn't all of it -- the family, the talent, the career that began at 16 and had so much promise -- so close to swirling down the drain, as he said, as she said?

What is the area code at the bottom?

"So many times he would call in desperation and say, 'You've got to get me out of this place I'm at,' " Pam Gomez, Garrett's wife, said at the dining room table in their Duarte home. "The problem was, I couldn't get him out of that place because he had to get himself out. I could only provide the car. I could only give him a ride."

It is Thanksgiving week of an amazing year, and one day at a time their marriage and life are back on track, his career on track as never before.

On Thursday, Garrett and Pam will take Jared, 4, and Amanda, 2, to his parents' house in Riverside, where his sister and brother and many in-laws and cousins will share a festive dinner, Gomez sober and taking the whole day to be with a family drawn closer by his problems, the parents and others who so often had to join the search for him before he ultimately found himself.

It will be a rare Thanksgiving when he hasn't been riding or in rehab.

A rare Thanksgiving, Pam Gomez said, "on a happy and healthy note rather than the stress and worry we've been through at times."

Garrett Gomez relaxed on a couch in the jockey's room at Hollywood Park and shook his head.

"I've been shaking my head for the last eight months," he said. "Every time God has put something positive in my life and I acknowledge what he's done, he's put something else that's positive in my life.

"And, you know, he may not be doing it just for me. He may be doing it for some other person who needs the help and strength and gets it from seeing what he's done for me. Cool. Maybe I'm just along for the ride."

If there is an unintended pun in that, if Gomez also had to learn to put God in the saddle with him as a major element in coping with the addiction -- the alcohol and the cocaine, speed, marijuana and crystal meth -- it is a God, Gomez said, that he can relate to and understand.

"I'm not a religious person and I don't go to church," he said, "but when I got involved in the program I'm now involved in, I had to find a higher power of my understanding that was caring and forgiving and while it took a while, I came to learn and to believe that there is such a God, and that's a great thing. ...

"I've always known I've had the ability, and there were times when I had the opportunity to make something happen in a positive way, but either I'd fall apart or they never came together. I rode and won big races, but I just never reached the magnitude of this year, or the confidence of this year, and obviously I just never handled many of those previous situations as smoothly as I could have."

Now, Gomez said, he has better coping skills, is better able to balance family and career, and has a better understanding of Garrett Gomez, the person.

"He's sent me down a road where I've met that person," Gomez said, "and think he's a pretty good guy."

All life is a learning experience and maybe, as Jim Peagram, Gomez's agent, suggests, it just took his client 16 years to get it right and now "there has been a 180-degree swing in self-esteem and personality." Previously, Peagram said, Gomez had "always been something of a prima donna," only wanting to ride certain horses for certain trainers and complaining loudly when he didn't get his way or was bumped by a trainer. People had the impression, the agent said, he would just as soon be playing golf as working horses.

"He's come to grip with the realization that he was hurting the people around him as much as he was hurting himself," Peagram said. "Now he doesn't complain about anything and I get calls from owners and trainers appreciative of how he rode their horse out to get second or third money. I used to represent both Garrett and David Flores and I would tell them that the sky was the limit for both of them. Garrett has gone beyond the sky."

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