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
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
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
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
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 . . . .
Excerpted from "The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey's Journey Through Addiction & Salvation" by Rudolph Alvarado. Copyright © 0 by Rudolph Alvarado. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.