Multiple Helping Hands Propelled Young Rider Gomez to an Eclipse Award

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Jose Antonio Gomez was all smiles Jan. 26, 2023, in Palm Beach, Fla., where he accepted the Eclipse Award as outstanding apprentice jockey. (Eclipse Awards/NTRA photo)

Jan. 26, 2023, was a day that Jose Antonio Gomez will always treasure.

It was an evening with the potential to shape his career — and life — in ways he could only dream about five years ago.

On that night, when he was selected as the outstanding apprentice jockey of 2022 at the Eclipse Awards festivities, the 22-year-old Michigan native morphed from a promising, yet inexperienced rider into a member of a select group whose early accomplishments stood out.

“An Eclipse Award is a very prestigious thing in my eyes or anyone’s eyes. It’s what all young jockeys aim for, and I am very grateful that they honored me with the award,” Gomez said this past weekend between races at Aqueduct. “I never thought it would happen that fast. Of course, I dreamed about winning an Eclipse Award but I thought it would be as an older rider. I didn’t think my apprenticeship would be this big of a success. It was a long road to get here but I’m still going forward.”

Standing at the podium inside the ballroom of the lavish Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., Gomez made his acceptance speech while wearing a tuxedo for the first time.

“I knew it was a big, classy event and I had to look the part,” he said.

With just a little more than a minute and a half to talk, Gomez could not offer his thanks to the many individuals who played key roles in his quick ascent. Above all there were his mother, Anamaria Benitez, and his late father, Luis Gomez, who died in 2018. Both were backstretch workers. Benitez, a groom, and Gomez, an exercise rider, both put in long hours and instilled in their son an appreciation for the fruits of hard work.

Gomez celebrates stakes win on Golden Rocket. (NYRA/Susie Raisher)

“His parents raised Jose right,” trainer Kelly Breen said. “He’s a hard worker and his personality is extraordinary. The more people who meet him, there’s more people who like him.”

Gomez’s agent, iconic 80-year-old Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., played a huge role. He tutored Gomez and connected him with trainers and owners so that the “bug boy” (a slang term for an apprentice jockey) was able to win 153 races in 2022 while competing throughout the year on the ultra-competitive New York Racing Association circuit and riding at Parx Racing on dark days.

Gomez earned $7,647,616, the most among apprentice riders in North America. Even at Saratoga Race Course, with the sport’s premier jockey colony on hand, Gomez, with his five-pound weight allowance, was able to tie one of the circuit’s most established year-round riders, Kendrick Carmouche, for 13th in the standings with 11 wins, one in a New York Stallion Series stakes with Golden Rocket minus the benefit of the weight break.

“I’ve learned a lot of little things from Angel that make you better. Things like keeping your chest down and being aerodynamic. Having a rhythm. Using your crop in a rhythm and staying straight. They may not seem like big things, but they are,” Gomez said.

“There are things I’m doing wrong that I don’t even realize I’m doing, and he sees it and corrects it. I have tremendous respect for Angel. Age is just a number. He’s still sharp.”

Then there’s the No. 1 member of the Jose Antonio Gomez Fan Club, a driving force behind Gomez’s rise from exercise rider to jockey, someone who helped open some big and heavy doors for him.

Ask Cordero for Gomez’s phone number and you’ll get a contact listing for “Kelly Breen bog.”

Yes, there’s a typo. It’s “bog” instead of the correct “bug,” but the impact of the words cannot be denied. Gomez was Breen’s “bug boy,” and he took the rider under his wing like an adopted son. For about two years, he has championed Gomez’s quest to become a top rider and advocated on his behalf in many circles, including making the calls that ultimately convinced Cordero to become the agent for “Kelly Breen bog.”

“Kelly had a plan for me, and I’m very grateful for that,” Gomez said. “He saw something in me that no one else did and he had faith in me.”

Growing up on the backstretch at Penn National Race Course, where his parents worked, Gomez joined them in getting up at 4 a.m. while he mucked stalls as a 12-year-old.

“Mom was always working and that taught me a lot,” Gomez said. “Seeing her work so hard inspired me.”

Since his youth, he worked for numerous people he is quick to thank, such as Ronald Rogers; his uncles Valentin Contreras and Miguel Alejandro; Richard Lugovich and his wife, Lisa; Clovis Crane; Eddie Rodriguez; Tristan de Meric; and Skip Einhorn. Then there was a pony named “Lucky” he bonded with and honed his riding skills aboard. He began working horses at Arlington International Race Course as a teen and was then convinced to move to Monmouth Park for the 2020 meet.

Living in his car his first few days there, he began working with Einhorn. Then he met Breen and his life began to change.

Breen congratulates Gomez after stakes win on Royal Urn. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

“When he first started working horses for me, I saw he had good hands,” Breen said. “He’s not the smallest of jockeys, so there was some concern. He was about 19 years old and he had these big feet, so you knew he would grow. I asked him ‘Are you going to keep the weight off, kid?’ and he did. Just to see him breeze some horses, I saw horses respond to him. Horses who didn’t work that well did for him. He wasn’t fighting horses. He was helping horses.”

While others had given Gomez opportunities, Breen took it several steps further by offering advice and support.

“I do treat Jose like I would a family member, and I don’t say that about a lot of people. You keep your inner circle close, and he’s part of that inner circle. For the past two years, I have been talking to people about him, and I hope it was the right people,” Breen said. “He only rode for me in the early stages. I didn’t want him going out there in the public. Like I would with a son, I didn’t want him on a horse who just bolted because they needed a rider. He was well protected and kept out of people’s barn who didn’t use the right equipment. I didn’t say it out loud, but I didn’t want him on horses with bad habits.”

After Gomez worked for Breen in New Jersey in 2020, he sent him to Florida, where adversity struck. In late January, Gomez was involved in a spill and broke his arm. He needed to have a rod and screws inserted to repair it. Compounding matters, Gomez was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the hospital and could not have visitors during his stay.

Reflecting on the injury during his acceptance speech at the Eclipse Awards, Gomez said, “Who would have imagined me being here? If you asked me two years and five days ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you.”

After his recovery, Gomez, who rode back then with a 10-pound weight allowance, recorded his first mount on Positively Mine on June 12, 2021. He notched his first win on Top Gun Tommy for Breen on Oct. 28 of that year at Belmont Park.

Around the same time, Breen began to call Cordero about becoming Gomez’s agent.

“The knowledge Angel has is immeasurable,” Breen said.

When Cordero watched Gomez, he liked what he saw.

“I thought he had great potential,” Cordero said, who was an early mentor to the Ortiz brothers, Jose and Irad Jr., who have totaled five Eclipse Awards.

Gomez came into Cordero’s life at an opportune time for both. Cordero had been synonymous with Hall of Famer John Velazquez during 22 years as his agent. When Velazquez, the all-time earnings leader, moved to agent Ron Anderson early in 2020, Cordero still represented Manny Franco, a two-time NYRA leader. But in January 2022, after nearly seven years together, Franco switched agents, allowing Cordero to focus on Gomez, watching his rides closely and tutoring him on the customized Equicizer, a mechanical horse, in Cordero’s home.

Cordero Jr. at the 2009 Kentucky Derby. (Anne Eberhardt/Blood-Horse)

“I told Jose we will take a beating together and come out on top, and so far it’s so good,” Cordero said.

The early results exceeded expectations. Gomez posted 34 wins at the 2021-’22 Aqueduct winter meet and 13 more at the Belmont spring meet, advancing from a 10-pound allowance to seven pounds and finally five.

“In the spring in turf races, I could see the difference in him,” Cordero said. “Coming home through the lane he looked great. He has a polished look to him for an apprentice. He wasn’t bobbling up and down. Within a few months of riding, his legs were stronger and he looked more fluid, and watching him it’s amazing to say he’s got it. Coming down the stretch with the top riders in the country, he looked like he belongs with them.”

A key point in Gomez’s season — and career — came when Cordero told Gomez to ride at Saratoga rather than Monmouth, where Breen is based during the summer.

“I said if he rides at Saratoga, he is going to learn so much more than riding at Monmouth. He’ll be riding against the best riders on the best horses and he’ll be exposed to the best trainers,” Cordero said. “It was slow at first and I was worried that I made a mistake. I talked to Johnny [Velazquez] and asked if I made a mistake, and he said he has talent and that if he wants to be a good jockey, he needs to be at Saratoga. He said all young riders go through those struggles.”

Gomez agreed that competing against the best jockeys on a regular basis has been a huge help.

“Angel told me, ‘If you want to be the best, you have to be with the best and compete against the best.’ When you are around the best riders, you learn their good habits and correct your bad habits,” Gomez said.

“I learned not to let myself get too wrapped up in instructions. I try to follow them, but if I can’t, I know I’ve got to go to Plan B. When I first started, if my horse had speed and the horse inside of me wanted to go, I’d go with him. As you get more experience, you learn to try and save some horse. As a 10-pound bug boy you tend to go wide to avoid any trouble. Now things are slowing down for me and I see the value in saving some ground.”

Like most good things in life, apprenticeships do not last forever, and the ticking clock will end to Gomez’s tenure on Feb. 9. After that, he will lose the five-pound allowance and enter the time frame that can make or break a career — even for an Eclipse Award winner. Helping Gomez’s cause is the season, as many of New York’s best jockeys will not return on a full-time basis until the spring.

“He won’t get to ride seven or eight horses a day when he loses the bug, but the customers I have will still use him. When all the riders get back from Kentucky, it will be tough,” said Cordero, who will represent apprentice Jaime Torres after Gomez loses his allowance. “Jose has made great progress. Right now, he’s more polished than Johnny was when his apprenticeship ended.”

Gomez is determined to stay in New York, and his dedication was reflected the day after the Eclipse Awards. He flew back to New York and won the last race at Aqueduct aboard East Coast Girl for Breen.

Trainer Kelly Breen (Eclipse Sportswire)

“I’ve given other riders a chance to have their first ride, but Jose took it to a new level,” Breen said. “You talk about winning an Eclipse Award, you dream about it, and for it to come true was beyond words.

“I’m still ecstatic and I’m ecstatic for Jose. But then, after that, there was no lounging around at the beach and celebrating. No time to dwell on what happened. He went right back to work and that says a great deal about his maturity and professionalism.”

While there’s no telling what the future will hold, Gomez is determined to be remembered for more than what happened on that January evening in Florida.

“If I can get the business here, I want to stay here in New York. We have people that have given me opportunity and hopefully they will keep doing that and I’ll make the most of those opportunities,” Gomez said. “I don’t want to be known as a bug boy who won the Eclipse Award. I want to keep getting better and become one of the best jockeys.”

If that happens, don’t be surprised if Cordero finally changes the name in his contacts of someone who has become much more than “Kelly Breen bog.”

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