Two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Garrett Gomez died on December 14. He was 44.
I typed that sentence at the bottom of my weekly column in the Irish Field, below Mastery and Abel Tasman Grade 1 scores at Los Alamitos, below Paulasilverlining’s Aqueduct triumph, below Irish-bred Lady Valeur’s off-the-turf stakes win.
Yes, below all those.
A man’s life, poof, a footnote in 900 words.
Thinking Gomez had earned more than a token paragraph at the bottom of a column, I moved him to the top and then climbed into my attic looking for old stories about Gomez – it’s the least I could do for a jockey who flamed out, for a friend who drifted away.
An addict, Gomez missed years of riding earlier in his career, spent 40 days in jail for narcotic possession, spent six months in rehab and then had somehow held the rattling door closed for years, standing strong to lead the nation in earnings for four consecutive years, win 13 Breeders’ Cup races, ride the likes of Beholder and Blame.
In 2013, he took off his mounts at Del Mar, admitted to slipping from sobriety and that was the beginning of the end.
“For myself, I need to know the goal we’re going to…I need a light at the end of the tunnel,” Gomez had said in 2006.
Injuries, weight problems, another divorce, the limelight gone, Gomez rode his last race in 2013, announced his retirement on Facebook in 2015 and slipped into the tunnel somewhere in between.
The beat goes on with or without you.
We talked about him from time to time, people tried to help, they were rebuffed. When we did talk about him, it was like reminiscing about a paper airplane that blew out of your hand. I hadn’t asked about him in a while, I hadn’t asked former agent Ron Anderson, his friends John Velazquez and Mike Smith, his valet Tony Millan about him, kept meaning to ask while scared of the answer. Gomez rode Beholder, then disappeared, she kept going and we kept going. I feel like we’ve failed him as he failed himself, knowing full well that we’ll never understand a troubled soul, an addict’s mind.
I’ll remember his wry smile, his decimation of the English language while trying to put words to something that came so natural, the power generated when shoulders and hips and core came together like a perfect machine. His ride on Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, his ride on Colonel John – two masterpieces – while I rooted for Zenyatta to beat Blame and bet Mambo In Seattle to beat Colonel John. He was a perfect fit in Saratoga, adding grit to a corner already occupied by Velazquez. They were comrades in arms, similar style, competitive, fire burning hot and cold, but never going out.
After the Travers, while styling his crazy low-cut hair, a 12-road intersection jutting and jagged, he talked about sliding through traffic on Colonel John to win by a nose. He made a thousand perfect moves in two minutes, then he wrestled with a tie and a pink shirt that had too much collar. He fiddled, yanked, made it worse. I helped, folding the collar just below his right ear and flattening it around his neck.
“Thanks, brother,” he said, eyes squinting, smiling wide.
As I finished, I noticed smudges of black from my journalist’s hands around his collar, it was part Racing Form ink and part racetrack dirt. I turned him away from the mirror and told him he looked good.
To me, he never looked better than in those heady summer days at Saratoga – a far cry from lost and alone, dead in a hotel room.
In the attic, I found a column from 2006 when Gomez talked about making the move from Del Mar to Saratoga.
“I miss a lot of the guys,” Gomez said. “I’ve been there for seven years, they are guys who have seen me fall, get back up, stumble…they’ve seen me struggle and been a part of it. Even guys not in the jocks’ room, fans of mine that I’ve been in recovery with, they wonder about me, check in with me, ask me when I’m coming back.”
Sadly, we now know the answer.