By Dick Powell
The news that Garrett Gomez was found dead on Wednesday at the age of 44 at a casino hotel south of Tucson, Arizona hit like a punch below the belt. Even when bad news is not surprising, it is still shocking when it arrives with the finality of it all.
Gomez had his demons and fought them for many years. During his riding career when he controlled his demons, he was as good as anyone. Quick away from the gate, he wasn’t poetry in motion while relaxing his horses.
But, there was nothing more beautiful in horse racing than Gomez finishing furiously through the stretch and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. He was easily the strongest rider I had seen since the glory days of Laffit Pincay Jr. and if his horse lacked the intestinal fortitude to get to the wire first, Gomez was there to carry him home.
Named America’s top rider in the 2007 and 2008 Eclipse Award voting, he also led the money earnings list from 2006 through 2009. The winner of 13 Breeders’ Cup races, Gomez rode every race like it was a Grade 1 stakes. I remember being at Santa Anita on a weekday afternoon of racing and Gomez won the first three races and in all of them, he would not let his horse get passed in the stretch. None were Grade 1 stakes horses but they had a Grade 1 stakes rider on their backs and that was the difference between winning and losing.
One of my favorite Garrett Gomez rides was aboard PIONEEROF THE NILE (Empire Maker) in the 2009 Kentucky Derby (G1). Over a track that he seemed to be struggling over, Gomez was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at his mount and was able to forge to the lead in the stretch. Once there, Calvin Borel flew by him down on the rail aboard 50-to-1 longshot MINE THAT BIRD (Birdstone) and the race was over.
While Mine That Bird was cruising to an easy victory, there was Gomez flailing away aboard Pioneerof the Nile and somehow, he was able to hold on to be second. If you bet him that day, you wanted to buy him dinner since his mount had every right to pack it in. But, Gomez wouldn’t let him.
In the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Gomez negotiated a ground-saving trip through traffic for BLAME (Arch) to seize command in the deep stretch under the lights at Churchill Downs. The only danger, and what a danger it was, was ZENYATTA (Street Cry) bearing down on him in full stride and what promised to be a race for the ages was right before our eyes.
Zenyatta, winner of her first 19 races, was trying to retire undefeated in her 20th career start but Gomez got busy on Blame and urged every ounce of energy out of him. It was just enough as Blame held on by a nose as Zenyatta rallied to be a gallant second. Few races live up to expectations but the 2010 Classic exceeded them and Gomez’s ride aboard Blame was one for the ages.
Gomez stopped riding in 2013 and officially retired in 2015. Without the discipline and structure that horse racing provided him, you just prayed that he would be able to handle life without it but it looks like his demons won. What a shame for him and his family.
The Gulfstream Park championship meet began on December 3 and in the first eight days of racing, it looks like nothing has changed. The main track is as speed-favoring as ever. There have been 23 races run at six furlongs and 43% were won gate to wire and the speed bias was 70%.
Going a one-turn mile on the dirt, the speed bias was 62% and the preferred winning running style was close to the pace.
Another aspect of the Gulfstream Park championship meet was in full view last Saturday when Todd Pletcher won four races and is now 7-for-22 with 14 horses finishing in the money. Pletcher rests many of his horses in the fall and has them ready for this meet, and he is doing it again this year. With gusto!