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Publisher Caballo Press of Ann Arbor
Before becoming one of the world’s foremost jockeys, multiple-Eclipse award winner Garrett Gomez was an alcoholic and a drug addict. Throughout his career, he established himself as an up-and-coming jockey, but just as it seemed that the racing world was his for the taking, he threw it all away, and retreated to a life where alcohol and drugs dictated his every move.
This year read the remarkable journey of a jockey who had it all, lost it all, and came back to win his life, his family and his career. Written by Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award winner Rudolph Alvarado with Garrett Gomez.
Once Upon a Time
“He didn’t have to fight for it. It came so early.
It was almost as if it was bestowed upon him.”
Harry “the Hat” Hacek, July 1997,
at the time Garrett Gomez’s agent
In July 1997, approximately a year after Garrett “Go-Go” Gomez returned to racing after spending time in a psychiatric ward and a couple of alcohol rehabilitation facilities, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune asked the 25-year-old, baby-faced jockey if he was ready to commit fully to a riding career that had brought him fame and fortune. Garrett reflected for a moment and then answered, “Once upon a time I felt everything was coming together. Now, I feel I’m working myself back up again—so people can see that I’m back 100% and the rider I was before alcohol took over my life.”
His response, the reporter noted, imparts “the impression that there’s sort of a fairy-tale quality to his jockey career.”
The reporter was right.
From the start, this “prince” shared a magical connection to the Sport of Kings: all of the Thoroughbreds on which he rode celebrated birthdays on the same day as him; January 1. This is the birth date given to every Thoroughbred born in the Northern Hemisphere in a given year, regardless of the true date on which they were born.
He came from humble beginnings, having won his first race on August 19, 1988, at Santa Fe Downs aboard five-year-old gelding Furlong Circle, a victory that awarded backers $81.40 on a two-dollar wager and earned the 16-year-old $1,250, an amount, that for a teenager, represented a king’s ransom. He won two more races at the Downs and then moved on to The New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque. From there he forged ahead to Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona, a track regarded by racing fans in the southwest as being “the big time.”
The novice’s natural abilities catapulted him to the Midwest where he enjoyed tremendous success in Nebraska at both Fonner Park and Ak-Sar-Ben.
A year later, he won his first career stakes race, the Remington Green Handicap, aboard Gauntlett Bay, at Remington Park. He went on to finish as the country’s second-leading apprentice in victories with 182 and was the runner-up for the Eclipse Award—horse racing’s equivalent of the Academy Award—as apprentice jockey of the year.
In 1991, the 19-year-old’s winning ways brought him great recognition on the Chicago circuit and established him as one of the sport’s rising stars. On July 11 of the same year, he won five races in one day at Arlington Park, and in October, he captured Woodbine’s Grade II $345,300 E.P. Taylor—Canada’s premier filly and mare race—on Lady Shirl. Her victory in the quarter–mile turf race was the first time in a decade that a North American runner had reached the winner’s circle. The previous nine were won by fillies and mares from France and England.
Garrett’s fairy-tale climb up the ranks of his profession continued when he won Oaklawn Park’s Arkansas Derby in 1994 aboard the 20-1 longshot Concern, and on the next day the Lexington Stakes with Southern Rhythm at Keeneland racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky. This triumph assured him and his mighty steed a spot in the sport’s most hallowed race, the Kentucky Derby.
A win in the Run for the Roses would’ve topped off the fairy-tale journey of his rise from rags to riches, but it was not to be. Southern Rhythm finished a disappointing seventh.
Undeterred, he marched on to the Preakness Stakes where, this time, he took up the fight with the well-rested Concern. They fought gallantly but could do no better than third. He didn’t ride in the Belmont Stakes, that race was reserved for the likes of Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, and Laffit Pincay, Jr. Both Day and Pincay were already immortalized in the sport’s hall of fame, and Bailey would join them in 1995.
Losing the Derby, the Preakness and missing out on the Belmont hurt, but it did nothing to hamper the prince’s confidence. “Such victories,” the 22 year old assured those around him, “are part of [my] future.”
He finished 1994 with 134 wins, and in that year alone his horses earned over $4,000,000, out of which he pocketed 10%.
The next year, he repeated as the winner of the Arkansas Derby, this time aboard Dazzling Falls. The deed hadn’t been matched since Pat Day had done it in 1986-87. Articles and media coverage that followed the accomplishment marked the first time that the young jockey’s name was so strongly associated with the “royalty” of the sport.
But, just when it seemed as if he was poised to take the next step toward dominating his profession, the racing world learned that there was a darker side to the young jockey’s life: he was an alcoholic and a drug user. The fact of the matter was that he’d been a functioning addict for as long as he could remember. Somehow, he’d managed to keep that aspect of his life a secret, but he could do it no longer. The tormented jock announced his retirement and retreated to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he abused alcohol and drugs with reckless abandon.
His first stop every morning was at the refrigerator, where he grabbed a beer and quickly guzzled it down. His body needed the booze to get moving—to steady himself before he could even drive to a bar to drink in public. He had the shakes, and the only way to stop them was to drink.
Each day he kept drinking more and more and more until, as he was to put it later, “drinking became . . . my job.”
After a long and arduous battle, in 1996, our protagonist slew the “dragons” that were his addictions.
He returned to the sport pure and clean. His charmed career picked up where he’d left it. He won his comeback ride at Oaklawn Park. Then in 1997, he won the Mid-America Triple, riding Honor Glide to victory in the Arlington Classic, the American Derby, and the Secretariat Stakes—an achievement that hadn’t been accomplished since race horses Tom Rolfe had done it in 1965, and Buckpasser in 1966.
But, as had been the case before, the “happily ever after” that should’ve ended the story right here, was not to be.
What few knew was that alcohol and drugs had always been a part of the troubled jockey’s life. At the beginning, he’d depended on alcohol to pacify the demon he carried inside, and when that was no longer enough he added cocaine, methamphetamines, and any other drug he could get his hands on to the mix. Alcohol and drugs became a necessity: his body and mind required them just to function.
But through it all, his life as a jockey always provided him an escape from life and all of its challenges. Racing also required discipline; something that he needed to balance out his alcohol and drug use. There was always another race to ride and win. With those victories came the belief that there was nothing wrong, but most importantly—with those wins came peace and calm, and a sense of self-worth. In time, however, even riding horses and winning wouldn’t be enough to save him from himself.
In time, Garrett Gomez came to understand that there was a battle raging inside of him, a battle for the ultimate control of his destiny. Stretching ahead of him was a proverbial fork in the road: To turn right meant life as a jockey, a husband, a father and ultimately salvation; to turn left meant life as an alcoholic, a drug addict and certain death. This realization, as our champion so clearly remembers, crystallized itself in 1991 as he was entering the second turn at Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights, Illinois . . . .
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