If Garrett Gomez had cancer, he'd already be in the Hall of Fame.
But because he suffered from addiction, a disease most people don't understand and one that many refuse to even acknowledge, a majority of Hall of Fame voters since 2011 have been weighing the two-time Eclipse Award-winning rider's perceived moral weakness instead of his remarkable skills and undeniable accomplishments.
I say this as an addict who, like Gomez, could have died, isolated in a hotel room somewhere with a cache of drugs pulsing through the bloodstream to the point that the heart can no longer function. One who, at least in the present, is in recovery from this chronic and progressive disease of the brain that short-circuits the decision-making process.
It saddened me when Gomez, who was a role model for many recovering addicts for more than a decade, relapsed in 2013 and drifted toward isolation, a terrible destination for any addict. I was angry but not really surprised when I received a phone call the evening of Dec. 14, 2016, telling me Gomez was found dead at the age of 44. A coroner's report said methamphetamines, cocaine, morphine and marijuana were in his system.
There but for the grace of God go I and millions of others who have struggled or are struggling with addiction.
This is the end game: it's what the disease is doing to the unemployed coal miner in eastern Kentucky, the suburban housewife near Philadelphia, the farmer's son in central Ohio, the retired jockey in Arizona. In West Virginia, the addiction epidemic has reached a point where funeral homes can't keep up with the dead bodies. The drugs may vary, but the disease is the same. Like cancer, addiction is a curse.
For 10 glorious years – from the time he got out of jail and a treatment center in 2003 until his relapse in 2013 – Garrett Gomez won the battle against this disease. He rode like a magician, every decision seeming to be the right one. He carried tired horses to the finish line in front like no one I've seen since Laffit Pincay Jr.
Gomez earned four consecutive national money titles, from 2006-'09, won 76 stakes races in a single year, rode 13 Breeders' Cup winners in eight years, earning the Bill Shoemaker Award four times as top jockey at the Breeders' Cup.
That he was able to scale those heights while battling a disease is a sign of incredible strength, not weakness. Just imagine what a healthy Garrett Gomez would have accomplished were the first 15 years of his career not plagued with alcohol and substance abuse, had he ridden off into the sunset on his terms and not those of the disease that ultimately took his life?
For the sixth time in the last seven years, voters will consider whether Garrett Gomez deserves to have a plaque hanging inside the National Museum of Racing alongside the sport's other notable jockeys, trainers and horses. To me, the answer is obvious: Garrett Gomez belongs in the Hall of Fame.
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