Horse racing will teach you to savor the moment, to soak up all the goodness and hold it close to your heart. A horse race is over like a flash of lightning — and if you really stop to think about it, isn’t life like that?
Garrett Gomez relished his countless moments in the saddle with sincere appreciation for the sport and for each Thoroughbred he rode. He was a natural, and something about him brought out the best in the thousands of horses he partnered with.
Gomez in the zone was red-hot magic. He carried tired runners to the wire with tremendous finishing power, willing the way to victory. He could sense a path to the winner’s circle before his rivals did, knew that instinct gave him an edge, and took great pride in it. He lived for strategy and the adrenaline rush but also loved the connection between horse and rider; a bond beyond words. He had a feel for horses that only the great ones have.
Born Jan. 1, 1972, in Tucson, Ariz., Gomez was the son of jockey Louie Gomez, who would often carry his baby boy into the winner’s circle aboard his mounts. Garrett dropped out of high school and began riding at 16 and won his first race in 1988 at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Downs. A year later he was the nation’s second-leading apprentice.
Gomez fought his own weakness in a lifelong struggle with substance abuse before he died Dec. 14 because of a methamphetamine overdose. He was 44. His career reflects the roller coaster, from highs like his 1994-’95 Arkansas Derby wins and 2000-’01 Pacific Classic Stakes victories, to lows that saw him leave the saddle for months on end. But in the beautiful decade between 2003 — when he shook off his demons — and 2013 when he rode his last race, he left his undeniable mark on the sport and in the hearts of those who rode along with him, either in person or in spirit.
Gomez’s resurgence blossomed in 2005 with his third Pacific Classic score, on Borrego, and the first two of 13 total Breeders’ Cup wins — with Stevie Wonderboy in the Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Artie Schiller in the NetJets Breeders’ Cup Mile. From 2006-’09, he ruled as the nation’s leading rider by purses earned. For jockey agent Ron Anderson, who took over Gomez’ book when Jerry Bailey retired from the saddle in January 2006, it was like a dream.
“This guy shows up day after day. You watch him ride. He never makes a mistake,” the agent recalled. “He’s in the right place at the right time; on the lead when he’s supposed to be; tucks in when he needs to. Of all the people I worked with, the craziest run of all might have been the five years I had with him.”
Gomez hurdled benchmarks with relentless focus. He set a single-season record of 76 stakes wins in 2007, including a Kentucky Oaks score aboard Rags to Riches. He won a record four Breeders’ Cup races at the 2008 World Championships. In 2009, his fourth straight earnings title came down to the last race of the year at Santa Anita Park on a pickup mount. That was Gomez, a two-time Eclipse Award winner (2007-’08) who would hang around the jocks’ room on New Year’s Eve for the chance to ride a $32,000 claimer to get what he wanted — to be the best.
The second-to-last Breeders’ Cup race Gomez won was perhaps his greatest, his only victory in the marquee event of the series. He rode with a fractured right shoulder, testing the edge of the pain with victories in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with More Than Real and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf with Pluck over the course of the two-day slate. Finally, fortified with hours of ice and aspirin, he stepped out into a cold November night at Churchill Downs and handed the mighty Zenyatta her lone loss with a victory aboard Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“I never have time to really take a huge victory in,” Gomez wrote in a post-race blog for ESPN.com. “It’s always on to the next step; let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. The fact that I haven’t been able to ride another race since we beat Zenyatta gives me a chance to relive that thrill, to let it sink in. I always appreciate my victories, but this is one you want to really enjoy.”
The Breeders’ Cup gave Gomez his fourth Bill Shoemaker Award. In 2011, he was presented with the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. He also won three Hollywood Park riding titles and a title apiece at Santa Anita, Keeneland, and Arlington International Racecourse.
While he called the West Coast home, at the peak of his career he was a jetsetter. Riding at Saratoga Race Course on a Friday, Del Mar on a Saturday, and Monmouth Park on a Sunday, he once joked his slogan could be "Garrett Gomez, coming to you live from racetracks across the nation!"
While petrified of flying, Gomez never second-guessed a riding assignment. He took so many red-eyes that one day on the backside of Hollywood Park, as they were warming up for a race, Jose Valdivia Jr. pointed his whip to a plane cruising overhead and remarked, “Look, Garrett, there goes your bed!”
There was no arrogance in him, none of the attitude that often comes with fame. First nominated to the Hall of Fame in 2011, he stayed humble and kind.
“It’s great to be nominated once again for the Hall of Fame,” Gomez said via Twitter in 2014. “It is a pure honor to even have my name on the [ballot]. So [the] next step is to get in!”
On Aug. 4, he’ll be inducted where he belongs, as those who honor his memory relive a kaleidoscope of moments both bittersweet and beautiful.
“I would like to thank everyone in the sport of horse racing for all the support I ever received in my career,” Gomez said when announcing his retirement in 2015. “I enjoyed every horse I ever rode, and I thank all of them for making my career. I’d like to apologize to all my fans for leaving the sport the way I did. Sometimes you have to do things in life for yourself. I’d like everyone to know I’m officially retired from the sport of horse racing. I thank everyone for all I achieved that had a part in my career. I had a lot of awesome moments in this game. Best game in the world. Thank you, horse racing.”