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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

At 33, re-licensed in September 2004 after a 21-month drug hiatus and rehab, Gomez has been the leading rider or runner-up in a succession of meets and won 26 stakes this year for 19 trainers, illustrative of the demand for his services. He has won five Grade I stakes compared with a total of nine previously, and the $13.1 million in purses is $4 million more than his previous high.

In one stunning weekend in early October, he won Belmont Park's $500,000 Grade I Vosburgh on 26-1 outsider Taste Of Paradise and the $1-million Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup on Borrego, then returned to California to win the $250,000 Grade II Lady's Secret on Healthy Addiction.

That, of course, was a prelude to the Breeders' Cup, where he won the Mile with Artie Schiller and the Juvenile with Stevie Wonderboy. The latter could be at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby on the first weekend in May, or as Gomez said, "He's the best 2-year-old I've ever ridden, and hopefully he'll be the best 3-year-old."

Doug O'Neill, who trains Stevie Wonderboy, views horse and jockey as "a perfect fit."

"Much like Eddie Delahoussaye," O'Neill said, "Garrett has an amazing way of saving his horse to the end, an amazing ability to get his horses to pick up the bit when the real running starts. He's blessed with something in his hands, and I say that because not all jockeys have it."

Gomez learned the secrets from his father, Louie Gomez, who rode on small tracks in Santa Fe, N.M., El Paso and elsewhere. How to sit a horse, use the whip, create a mental clock. He grew up in the jockeys' room, a boy among men, rode bulls for $50 jackpots, sampled his first beer and drug -- "White Crosses, sort of a crushed-up diet pill that we snorted," he said -- in high school, got his apprentice license at 16 and made a quick mark with 215 wins, then rode mainly in the Midwest and East before making California a full-time business in 1997.

The limelight is tricky, the roller coaster dangerous, and there are varied outlets when the intense 70 or so seconds of a six-furlong sprint is over.

Gomez had varying success amid the substance spiral, but a first marriage with two children dissolved, and he took close to a year off in the mid-1990s when riding in Kentucky and Arkansas to deal, in part, with alcohol abuse. He met Pam at Santa Anita in 1998 when she was working as an assistant to trainer Kathy Walsh.

"He told me about the alcohol problems," Pam said, "but he was young at the time of those problems, and I wasn't aware of the severity."

It was while pregnant with Amanda in the fall of 2002 that she became aware he was using drugs again and basically kicked him out -- "No one wants an alcoholic and drug fiend around kids, and I didn't blame her," Gomez said -- although she doesn't put it in terms of an ejection.

"He chose a lifestyle that didn't include a wife and kids, so there was no ultimatum that needed to be said," she said. "It was either what life do you choose ... where you are today or do you want your family and your career?"

She thought she had an answer when Amanda was born. Gomez surprised her by showing up at the hospital and slept in a chair overnight. He was gone the next morning, however, and a friend drove Pam home.

Gomez went to New Mexico for a time after that to ride and work on personal issues. Subsequently, facing warrants in three counties, he was arrested in Temecula in October 2003 on suspicion of possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. He spent 40 days in jail before being released on the condition he enter a rehab program. Pam Gomez thought their marriage was over.

"I pretty much had no thought of us being together," she said, up until they began talking on a meaningful basis again in the summer of 2004 when he was in a Pasadena program called Impact.

"Until then I was just hoping that one day we could be friends for the benefit of the kids," she said. "I was just waiting for [divorce] papers to be filed, and a lot of my sadness was fueled by the thought that our children would never really know him or see him ride. He's such an amazing rider and my daughter is such a horse lover and I kept thinking she would never see him except in the films we had. Now she's his biggest fan and the whole thing is pretty amazing."

Bob Fletcher, a former addict who works for the horsemen's Winner's Foundation, has been an important counselor for both Garrett and Pam, who calls him "a pivotal reason our marriage was saved." Fletcher and the foundation helped prepare Gomez for Impact.

"It's the toughest rehab program there is with the highest success rate," she said. "At that point there was no sense in a gravy program. At that point it was a matter of life and death."

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