Remembering Garrett Gomez

by | 11.01.2017 | 12:03pm
Garrett Gomez

(With one of the greatest records by a jockey in Breeders' Cup history [13 victories and 12 second-place finishes from 83 mounts], Garrett Gomez is remembered by the author of his biography The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey's Journey Through Addiction and Salvation. Gomez died from a drug overdose Dec. 14, 2016, and earlier this year was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.)

It has been some 10 months since Garrett Gomez's passing. It's hard to believe that he will not be riding in this year's Breeders' Cup or that we'll never see him live on the back of a horse again.  Even so, when I find myself looking out on a track, I still expect to see him on the back of a Thoroughbred.

The lucky ones are born knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives. Garrett was one of those lucky few. He knew, even before he could talk, that he was born to be a jockey. More than that, he was also one of the lucky few who understood the significance of what he was born to do, and the role it played in saving his life. Days spent on a horse gave him time; time to live, to marry, to have children, to try and become the person he so desperately wanted to be. He understood that there were battles raging for his soul, and he, better than anyone else, understood that it was up to him to win the war. “Every day,” he once told me, “is a fight to keep the demons away, but I have to do it for Pam (his wife), my children, my father, my mother, my sister, my Aunt Karen, and for Bob (Fletcher) at the Winners Foundation.”

I had met and knew the people Garrett spoke of fairly well by the time he shared this insight with me so I fully understood the personal history he shared with each of these individuals. He had put them through a living hell, but at the end of the day, he loved them all without reservation. I have not spoken to them since Garrett's passing. I can't bring myself to do it; not yet. Even so, I'm sure if I called each one and asked, “Do you think Garrett loved you?” I know without a doubt that they would all say, “Yes, yes, I know that he loved me.” These individuals would know this to be true, because once Garrett Gomez gave you his love, he seldom, if ever, asked for it back. But these individuals also knew that when he pushed you away, he was gone, lost, on a run; a lonely run with room enough for only one, him.

 

The shame of addiction
I asked Garrett once: “Why, why do you feel like you have to be alone when you're using drugs or drinking alcohol?” He tried to give me the pat answer, the one you read in all the articles pertaining to this aspect of his life, “Because I'm mean when I'm drinking and even worse when I'm high.”

“No,” I insisted at the time. “That's not good enough. I want you to help me understand why, why you feel the need to literally run away from those you love when you're using or drinking or both?”

Garrett spoke about the pressures at home, at the track; the availability of alcohol, of drugs, of women, of money.

I listened to him, and then said, “That's all fine and good, but what about you? Where do you fit in this picture?”

He knew that I was pushing him to dig deeper for an answer. To verbalize, perhaps for the first time, the reason – the real reason – for why he needed to be alone when he was on a run.

Garrett Gomez

At times such as these, there'd be silence; there was always silence when he was about to share something he'd never revealed to anyone else before.

“Shame,” he finally confessed, “because I feel shame. I don't want people I care about seeing me when I'm drinkin' or usin', especially my children.”

Again, there would be silence, but I already knew what he'd say next: “I can't do it to racing, to the horses. If there's one thing I can say, it's that I've always tried my best not to bring shame to racing. Racing has given me my life. I owe the sport that much. You know what I mean?”

That was my que, a question at the end of what he was saying. His signal telling me that he was done with the subject, that it was time to move on.

There would be questions left unanswered, but I knew better than to push it. I left this line of questioning alone until the time was right to bring it up once again. The occasion arrived during one of the last times Garret and I spoke in person. We were alone in a hotel room in Lexington, Ky., a hotel room, sadly enough, that resembled the one he died in. I asked him if he ever thought he'd find himself alone in a hotel room.

He didn't ask for any clarifying details. He knew exactly what I was asking.

Wearing the sly grin, he shared every once in a while, he answered, “I don't think so, but you never know.”

That was the only one of the pat answers that Garrett gave regarding his addictions that I ever came to accept as being truly genuine.

Even so, on this day, I wanted him to lie. I wanted him to say, “Hell no, you'll never find me in a hotel room high or drunk! No way. I'll be at home with my wife, my children or at the track, riding.”

Gomez won back-to-back Eclipse Awards in 2008-09

He was honest. He really was. Garrett Gomez never promised anyone a rose garden – including himself – and he wasn't stupid enough to think he'd never drink or use again, not even after all those years of being straight.

And when I asked him what it would take for him to throw it all away, he simply said, “I don't know. I don't know.”

I believed him.

I came from a family of alcoholics. I was one myself. Like Garrett, I too had family members die before their time due to alcohol or drug abuse, my father included among them. He died all alone just like Garrett, and he, too, was on a run when he died. Ironically, he died at the same age as Garrett, 44.

I have written a number of biographies: One on Henry Ford, another on Thomas Edison, and one on the longtime voice of Santa Anita, Joe Hernandez. These books have one thing in common: the subjects were already dead by the time they came into my life. Garrett Gomez was different. He was alive. I could meet him, talk to him, get to know him; hear him tell his story in his own words. His. All I had to do was listen and write, as well as do the ancillary research that comes along with books of this genre, but somewhere, somewhere along the line, Garrett came to mean so much more to me than just a subject I was writing a book about. He became someone I cared for, cheered for, prayed for.

I don't know what it was about him, but I'm sure we've all met individuals like him we instinctively care for without fully understanding why. Even now, I remember interviewing a man who'd known Garrett for years. He told me that even though he wasn't close friends with him, he'd say a prayer for him every night before going to sleep, a prayer asking the Good Lord to help Garrett stay off the drugs and the alcohol. I know that that is a prayer many of us echoed silently whenever we heard Garrett's name. We all wanted Garrett to be the one, the one who made it. The one who left his addictions behind and never looked back. That's what I wanted, and, yet, I think I knew all along that it was wishful thinking, because there was also something about Garrett's story, something that always dictated a tragic ending.

That is why, when I heard in 2013 he was asking off his mounts due to a relapse, that he was getting a divorce, that he'd checked into a rehab, that he was retiring from racing, and that he was retreating to Arizona, I feared the end was near. I wanted to call him, but I didn't want to bother him; didn't want to be one of those people who seemed to call and call and call him all the time. Besides, I always held out hope that my worries and my premonitions of headlines announcing his death due to an overdose were unfounded, that he was doing just as well as the last time we'd spoken, and then I received a text message from former jockey, trainer, actor, and author Tom Foley. The text read that he was sorry to hear of Garrett's passing. It took me weeks to admit to myself that I hadn't called Garrett because I didn't want to know the truth. The truth I knew to be oh so real.

“All the greats,” they say, “die young.” We all know Garrett Gomez was one of the great ones, a Hall of Famer.

 

An unfulfilled dream
In April of this year, I watched Sergio García beat Justin Rose in a sudden-death playoff to win the Masters golf tournament. This was García's first major championship title. It came in his 74th attempt at a major over 21 years. In describing the victory, sportswriter Luke Kerr-Dineen wrote, “He did it! He actually did! After a long, painful wait that included plenty of heartbreak, Sergio Garcia won the Masters. He did it in a playoff in the end, prevailing in a hard-fought duel over Justin Rose. The golf world was so happy for him, and his reaction to finally winning one made the wait worthwhile.”

Watching that moment, the moment when Sergio won his Masters, I was reminded of Garrett, of his love of golf, and of the sweet victory that will never come to him, the Kentucky Derby. I can only imagine the smile he would've worn, the tears he would've shed; his tossing of rose petals into the air; those petals floating down around him as fans roared; his hugging his wife and children; his pointing his whip to fans while yelling, “I did it, damn it! I finally did it!”

Gomez rode Blame to victory over Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic but never won the Kentucky Derby

At the end of The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey's Journey Through Addiction and Salvation, I pondered the question, what would happen if Garrett won the Kentucky Derby. I imagined that when articles were written, Garrett would make sure that they included a sentence or two about his struggles to overcome his addictions. Why? Because it would provide him with yet another opportunity to inspire someone to give up alcohol or drugs or both. And when all the excitement was over, I pictured him at home with his family, saying something like, “It's no big deal.  I'm already thinking about the next one.”

When I shared this idea for the ending with Garrett, he liked it, but it was the final sentence in the book that he cherished the most: “These two things [home and family] were always there waiting for him, but he was the only one that could've ever given those things to himself – and in the end, the only one that can take those things away.”

He loved the honesty contained in those words, and the challenge it held for him, but for me, it was the beginning of the book that haunted me then and today. It was a quote from Garrett:

“The horses are the ones that turn me into a star every day and I'm very fortunate to be a part of their lives. If it wasn't for the horses, I don't know what kind of life I would have.”

I remember reading that quote for the very first time; of sharing it with Garrett, and his answering the question for me: “I'd be dead,” he said, “that's exactly where I'd be without the horses.”

When we started our journey of writing his story, Garrett told me that the only place he ever truly felt at peace was when he was going around a track on a Thoroughbred. I have no doubt but that he's up in Heaven doing just that, and when I think of Garrett up in Glory, riding, I picture him as he described himself to me in a story about his childhood: He's a small boy. He wears his father's racing boots. He throws a towel, his pretend saddle, over the armrest of the family's sofa. He climbs aboard the armrest and when the flag drops he kicks the heck out of the sofa's sides. He whips the sofa with his father's whip, while balancing his father's oversized jockey helmet on his head, and as he crosses the finish line he yells something he told me he always yelled when he was riding his make-believe Thoroughbred, “Gomez has done it! He's won the Kentucky Derby!!”

Rest in Peace my friend. You're sorely missed. I'll never forget you.

Dr. Rudolph Alvarado co-wrote the definitive biography on Garrett Gomez with Gomez's assistance. The book, titled, The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey's Journey Through Addiction and Salvation, was a finalist for the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award and an Amazon Bestseller. Dr. Alvarado's biography, The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez: The Voice of Santa Anita, won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award in 2008. Dr. Alvarado is the publisher for Caballo Press of Ann Arbor, Mich., an independent publisher of equine related fiction and nonfiction. To contact Dr. Alvarado, please e-mail [email protected]

  • Jon

    Thank you Rudolph.

  • admiral

    Great story but what a colossal waste of life. I’m still angry when I think about Garret Gomez who was one of my favorite jockeys. The author notes that Garret had a great love for family and racing. I would agree but add he had a great love but a love not great enough. As for alcohol abuse I’ve been there and done that. Dry since April 5, 1999. And I may get a lot of grief for the next remarks but addiction is not a disease as those who know so much more than the rest of us constantly evangelize. It is a failure of spirit be it spiritual, moral, a failure in our character. Nobody puts a gun to our head and says drink! Get high! We do it to ourselves

    • Jon

      Amen

    • Sober and clean

      Sorry Admiral, but you’re dead wrong about alcoholism not being a disease. With more than 35 years of living sober and clean, one day at a time, and having worked with dozens, if not hundreds, of others very much like me, I know how we have suffered with the uncontrollable need to medicate ourselves. Addiction is usually not a failure in character as much as it is a body which metabolizes alcohol differently from “normal” drinkers. Once the invisible line between social drinking and alcoholic drinking is crossed there is no return…Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. Those millions of us who have arrested the disease on a daily basic through spiritual methods are the lucky ones. The unfortunates–like Garrett, Chris Antley, Michael Baze, etc.–weren’t guilty of any moral crime. They were victims of a powerful condition estimated to affect seven percent of Americans (the numbers vary by country and race).
      You are right, though, that no one puts a gun to our heads to drink/use. Normal drinkers can stop anytime without regret or much effort; those of us who crossed the line have no choice unless we find the ability to stay sober through some power other than ourselves.

      • gus stewart

        Wow using the invisible line theory is one that isnt used much, but i feel is accurate, at least for me, still have my moments, but a chemical addition is totally different in my veiw.

      • Jon

        You have great points. But like admiral says nobody puts a gun to your head and says drink or try drugs. In my opinion any alcoholic or drug abuser was either physically, mentally or sexually abused as a kid. That’s what plants the demon seed. Jon

        • Kimberly Therese Davidson

          I disagree and agree with that. Growing up in a family of addiction myself it doesn’t always have to be happening too you! However it did happen in our family. Not to us however we watched it growing up and heard the crying and seen a felt the pain.

          • Jon

            You’re right. Same here. Thanks

      • Tango F

        well said. They agree that obesity is a disease, but not drugs and alcohol. The emotional impulse to fill a void with a substance, comfort food, or even casual sexual encounters are symptoms of issues that can be addressed with education and compassion.

  • McGov

    I’m happy my fingers can type because I’m sure that words will be tough for a bit with this rock in my throat. What a nice tribute to an incredible jockey that left us far too young. Now I have to read the book ;)

    • Jon

      Great book!

  • greg

    The few times I met and spoke to GoGo he was one of the most honest and sincere people I’d known. I can’t say he and I were “friends” aside from seeing him at the track and hanging out a few times I don’t golf, he loved golfing, I am unable to ride due to a back injury so we didn’t go riding, but he was always a great and fun person to sit and chat with, I too was devistated when I heard he had died, reading now it was only 10 months ago seems crazy, it seems to me more like 2 years ago, however menories of talks are fresh, he’s someone I’ll never forget and will cherish the memories, God Bless GoGo

    • Tango F

      He had a nice sense of humor, and even at his peak, he wasn’t a haughty person … so nice and down to earth. He is missed, for sure.

  • gus stewart

    Cant believe it also. 10 months, he probably never knew how many people he touched with his extreme talent and humbleness. A rare find in this current world of athletes..

  • Meydan Rocks

    When I last saw him, it was the track with his beautiful daughters in attendance.
    Fathers and daughters. GO GO!!! RIP in everlasting…

  • Ida Lee

    I remember thinking how handsome he looked getting the Eclipse Awards…the sport lost one of its greats ….and it still hurts …

  • Chaz Domingoson

    He will always be my favorite jockey. I used to hold my son up in the air while we cheered for Go-Go to get there! RIP……..

  • Fred and Joan Booth

    Agree with the quote of “if it wasn`t for the horses don`t know what kind of life I would have.” So true for us! Always have to be on your guard against addictions of any kind.

  • S B-W

    A heartfelt tribute by Dr. Alvarado. “The Garrett Gomez Story” is a compassionate, insightful portrait of a man both touched by angels and pursued by devils. “The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez” is a wonderful bio, as well, which includes a treasure trove of 20th Century racing history, while the man’s life story unfolds as an engrossing mystery.

  • J

    MY GOD REST HIS SOUL.
    BUT, HE COST GARY MANDELLA A BREEDER’S CUP WITH TASTE OF PARADISE. HE MOVED TOO LATE & WAS OVERCONFIDENT.

    • jimmy ski

      All caps to pick apart a particular ride of a deceased Hall of Fame rider is pretty bogus.Garrett was so money when he rode so why don’t you read the book and give it a rest.

  • Michael Castellano

    Very well written article. We all have lost loved ones like Garrett. I think we are al susceptible to the same fate, and we will always struggle with how come some of us manage to avoid this path, while others do not. I would estimate that nearly half of my friends from my youth died prematurely due to some form of addiction. The world of the jockey is largely hidden from us, but just think how difficult it must be to maintain the paltry weight required to ride professionally. That must be a demon faced by nearly all riders, and one that often points a person in a risky and unhealthy direction.

  • Kimberly Therese Davidson

    Rudy that was great! Thank you for such a wonderful article. To answer your question…. yes! Yes I know my brother loved me. thank you!

    • Jon

      I lost my brother in 2001. At the age of 24. The more time that has gone by is the only thing that has helped me deal with it. I always beat myself up on what I could or should of done more to help him. Your brother was a great guy!

      • Kimberly Therese Davidson

        Thank you so much! He was pretty awesome wasn’t he.
        We have our days that make it extremely hard but hearing people talk so wonderful and highly of him gives our hearts so much comfort.
        I ask myself if he truly knew how many people he touched…

        • Jon

          He will forever be walking beside you! Jon

  • the buzz23

    Great race rider with a great sense of pace, and arguably his generation’s best finisher on a horse.

  • David Bloom

    I solely owned Taste of Paradise, when he ran in the BC. While I appreciate the comments about the horse, and the fact anyone who is knowledgeable knows he should have won the race (and most people recognize he was the best horse), he did not. As for Garrett, thirty days before he won the Vosburgh G-1 for myself and my family, having never even worked Taste before that race (Taste was the longest shot on the board). As a jockey (I really cannot comment on his personal life as I did not know him in that context), he was second to none, and an owner’s dream. He never gave me less than 110% on any of my horses, never eyed the tote board or had it dictate how he rode, and did the best he could. Like life, where there is no “perfect journey”, unfortunately despite the best laid plans, some times there is no perfect trip. Not a week goes by where I do not wish there was currently another jockey just like him to ride my horses, he was that great!

  • Kathy Young

    Such a terrible loss to the racing world. This is a fine article about Garrett Gomez, who left us far too soon. Thank you, Dr. Alvarado, for sharing this with us.

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