The thing that always resonated most with Ron Anderson about Garrett Gomez is how much his former rider cared — how much he cared for the 21,655 mounts he guided to a total of 3,771 victories, how he cared for his comrades in the jockeys’ room and the clients he rode for, how he seemingly put everyone and everything above himself.
“At the end of the day, he didn’t have a bad bone in his body,” said Anderson, who served as Gomez’s agent from 2006-’11. “He didn’t dislike anybody. He had no qualms against anybody. At the end of the day, like I said when [jockey] Chris Antley passed away, the only person they kind of don’t like are themselves.”
Anderson was among those who have spent much of the last 24 hours trying to digest news that the life of the kind-hearted man wracked with personal demons has come to a tragic end.
It was confirmed Dec. 14 that Gomez, a two-time Eclipse Award winner and one the most natural talents ever to grace the saddle, had died at age 44. Shelby Gomez, the jockey’s daughter, declined to give details on her father’s death.
As word of Gomez’s passing rippled through the Thoroughbred racing community, his too-soon loss touched a deep nerve with those who knew firsthand his classy personality and ugly personal drama. The Tucson, Ariz., native had battled substance abuse problems throughout his career, issues he detailed in the book he co-authored titled “The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey’s Journey Through Addiction and Salvation.”
If his troubles were well documented, so too were his life’s peaks. Regarded as one of the best finishers in the game, Gomez in his prime was almost untouchable — as evidenced by his 318 graded stakes wins, 13 Breeders’ Cup triumphs and streak of four straight years leading all riders in purse money from 2006-’09.
“I’m a big believer that obviously the guys I’ve been fortunate enough to represent — Jerry Bailey, Gary Stevens, Joel Rosario, Garrett — they have a sixth sense,” Anderson said. “They have a sixth sense for the animal, and Garrett was a person that was so in tune with the idiosyncrasies of the animal and the tendencies of the animal.
“He was just brilliant in all phases of the game. He could ride a speed horse, he could get a horse to relax, he could sense when a horse needed to be outside rather than inside. And as far as finishing, he was a scary finisher.”
The son of jockey Louie Gomez, Garrett Gomez began his career in New Mexico in 1988 and made a name for himself on the Midwest circuit — particularly at Arlington International Racecourse, where he won his first Grade 1 race, the 1997 Secretariat Stakes aboard Honor Glide.
When he shifted his tack to California, he proved he could stand out in one of the nation’s toughest jockey colonies, winning the 2000 editions of the Grade 1 Pacific Classic and Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante. After missing all of 2003 due to his substance-abuse issues, Gomez hit a new level with his career in the years that followed, including a brilliant 2007 season when he rode 77 stakes winners.
“As a rider, I think the record speaks for itself with how great he was with much room to achieve even more,” said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who knew Gomez as a boy and even rode against his father. “He was a thinker. He not only was very talented and very strong, but once he got out front, it was hard to get back by him. He wasn’t on the best horse all of the time, but he would think and have different ways that he would come up with to beat you.”
The lineup of top mounts Gomez guided reads like a who’s who of racing, including champions Beholder, Rags to Riches, Lookin At Lucky, Gio Ponti, Midnight Lute and Indian Blessing. To this day, Anderson still marvels at how Gomez somehow got Colonel John up at the finish line to edge Mambo in Seattle in the 2008 Travers Stakes. But if there is one race Gomez will always be synonymous with, it will be for his exploits in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, where he masterfully guided Blame to victory over the previously unbeaten, future Hall of Famer Zenyatta.
Having suffered a fall just days before the Breeders’ Cup, Gomez was unsure if his ailing shoulder would hold up enough to let him take the reins in what would go down among the most storied outcomes in Breeders’ Cup history. When he saw trainer Al Stall Jr. in the paddock, he dutifully reassured Stall he was ready to bring it.
“To this day, I’ve never had more confidence in a rider than I did with him when he rode for us,” Stall said. “The confidence level was sky-high every time I legged him up. Besides his extensive background, whatever ‘it’ was, he had ‘it’ when it came to horses.
“All our crew at the barn loved him. He was very generous with them. I was with him through the good times in his life. It’s just a shame he couldn’t maintain that 24/7, 365.”
Gomez officially retired from riding in 2015, but rode his last race in 2013 and had career earnings of $209,444,899. As recently as a few months ago, Smith said he ran into his old friend and was struck by how he looked like a man with life ahead of him, not one whose time was coming an end.
“I saw him a few months ago and I’ll be honest, he looked as good if not better than I had ever seen him. I was really surprised to hear what happened,” Smith said. "I remember walking away and thinking, ‘Man, it’s going to be about a year, maybe, and he’ll be back.’ ”