Remembering 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]

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