Gomez’s Redemptive Tale

On closing day of Keeneland’s spring meet, ostensibly in town to attend Rolex, my friend and I stole away from Friday afternoon dressage to find ourselves trackside. Under my arm was a dog-eared copy of The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey’s Journey Through Addiction and Salvation, and Gomez was on the card for several races that afternoon.

Like many of the meet’s top jocks (John Velazquez, Julien Leparoux), Gomez is a superstar: He’s won the Eclipse Award twice, led the nation in earnings four times (2006-2009) and boasts no less than 10 Breeders’ Cup victories on his resume.

And though I already considered myself a pretty big fan–keeping up-to-date on his ups and downs in the Daily Racing Form and Blood-Horse, or watching on TV as he rode Blame to victory in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic (which was, consequently, Zenyatta’s lone defeat) or took part in Animal Planet’s too-short-lived TV series “Jockeys”—this was something different: This was the real deal, this was Gomez talking strategy in the paddock, flying down the stretch coolly composed, handing goggles to ecstatic fans at the rail. The same Garrett Gomez, I now knew, who started abusing alcohol and drugs at 13 (“I just hadn’t figured it out because I was too young, and I didn’t know any better”), and who amassed charges in four California counties by the time he checked into Impact, his final stint in rehab, in 2002.

Because The Garrett Gomez Story is no conventional rags-to-riches, racetrack glory tale, even for those aware of Gomez’s struggle with addiction. Author Rudolph Alvarado, winner of the 2008 Dr. Tony Ryan Award for his Untold Story of Joe Hernandez, leaves no dark corner unexplored, no difficult question unasked, and his encyclopedic research and interviews with Gomez’s family, friends and professional connections—and of course Gomez himself—paint a complex, troubled portrait. At times, caught up in the upheaval and drama of the narrative–despite Gomez’s responsibilities as a husband and father, he was on the drug-addled, booze-fueled run for nearly two years, failing to ride in a single race for 21 months between 2002 and 2004—the racetrack took a backseat to Gomez’s frenzied lifestyle.

But Alvarado also succeeds in uncovering the precocious, supremely talented side of Gomez, saddling and jockeying his living room couch as a youngster, securing his first Kentucky Derby mount at 22. And if anything, the rock-bottoms of Gomez’s story, and his bravery and honesty in sharing them, only throw his subsequent accomplishments into dazzling relief.

“In the jock’s room, I’m now seen as an example of what you can accomplish if you keep your priorities straight,” says Gomez, 40, recipient of the peer-voted George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 2010. And as he chatted with trainers, making his way from track to paddock post-race day, my friend and I hung around.

All day I’d been wondering what to say I’d say to him, given the chance: That his story was true, that it was real, that its telling was, in my eyes, both redeeming and inspiring.

But “Hello” and “Thank You” were all I managed.

If I was a fan before, I have even greater respect for him now, and I’m convinced his tale of personal recovery will do some good for anyone, jockey or otherwise, who’s struggled in the tumultuous pursuit of dreams.

The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey’s Journey Through Addiction and Salvation is out tomorrow, May 30, from Caballo Press of Ann Arbor.

Order your copy here.

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