11/02/2006 12:00AM

After sinking low, Gomez rises to top

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The private rebirth of Garrett Gomez the person began roughly three years ago with his decision to forgo drugs and alcohol.

The public rebirth of Garrett Gomez the jockey began a little more than a year ago at Belmont Park when he rode two Breeders' Cup winners, the first of his career.

"It's always like a dream when you win a Breeders' Cup race," Gomez, 34, said earlier this week in the Churchill Downs jockeys' room, "much less two, and almost three."

A year after achieving that career pinnacle by winning the BC Juvenile with Stevie Wonderboy and the BC Mile with Artie Schiller - and narrowly missing in the BC Sprint with Taste of Paradise - Gomez has made a triumphant return to the Breeders' Cup as arguably the world's premier jockey. As of Wednesday, Gomez's mount earnings in 2006 had surpassed the $18 million mark, the most of any rider, and his package of six Breeders' Cup mounts, most notably Circular Quay in the Juvenile and Wait a While in the Filly and Mare Turf, again appears strong.

What is most remarkable about the way Gomez has risen to the height of his profession is that he hit such depths.

Gomez is the son of a jockey and from a family that traveled from track to track. He dropped out of the 10th grade and began riding races at 16. He was drinking heavily by age 17, and although he always has been relatively successful in his riding career, he never seemed to maximize his seemingly unlimited potential, frequently taking off his mounts for sketchy reasons and missing opportunities that might well have taken his career to the next level.

Typical of this elusiveness was the spring of 1994, when he moved his tack after the Oaklawn Park meet to ride full time at Churchill. Midway through the meet, he abruptly left, never to ride regularly on the Kentucky circuit again.

Today, Gomez readily concedes that this troubled past was inextricably linked with substance abuse. He had a number of stops and starts from 1994 through 1996 before he began doing well again in 1997, this time on the Southern California circuit. By 1999, when his mounts earned more than $9 million, he had crashed the elite of the North America riding colony, although he still had his personal demons because of his substance abuse.

Finally, while drifting in and out of racing for a 21-month period from 2002 to 2004, he hit rock bottom. He was arrested on July 3, 2003, in Temecula, Calif., on charges of possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia. He split 40 days among several jails in Riverside County, Calif., then was ordered into a six-month rehabilitation program.

It was in rehab that Gomez swore off the lifestyle that had proven to be an impediment to the success he finally is enjoying today.

"I tell my wife [Pam] that when I look back, when I was just getting out of the rehab center, that it's almost unreal what I'm doing today," he said. "Sometimes I get a little tired, and maybe want to just be spending time with my kids, but then I get back in touch with myself that I really have to be grateful for what's going on. My services are wanted by some of the biggest outfits in the game, and I'm having a lot of fun doing a job that I love."

His agent, Ron Anderson, said Gomez has been an ideal client. "He makes my job very easy, both with the way he conducts his life and the way he rides races," said Anderson.

Gomez won the Shoemaker Award at the Breeders' Cup last year for top performance by a jockey. He would love to earn the award for a second straight time and feels as if his mounts are capable of taking him to another big afternoon. Besides Circular Quay and Wait a While, his BC mounts are Octave in the Juvenile Fillies, Too Much Bling in the Sprint, Happy Ticket in the Distaff, and Perfect Drift in the Classic.

Circular Quay was defeated for the first time in four starts when second in the Oct. 7 Breeders' Futurity over the Polytrack surface at Keeneland.

"He didn't run bad there," said Gomez, "but I don't believe he ran his best. Hopefully when he's back on the dirt he'll come back to what he felt like at Saratoga," where he won the Grade 1 Hopeful.

Wait a While, a winner of her last four starts, all in graded turf stakes and all by at least 4 1/2 lengths, "has absolutely been a dream to ride," he said. "She's stepping up Saturday, but so far she's handled every test that's been given to her."

Gomez acknowledged that Perfect Drift is an outsider but said he believes the gelding's longevity and consistency give him a fighting chance.

"It'd be great to win the drive for five," he said, alluding to how this is the fifth straight time Perfect Drift will have run in the Classic.

Gomez said he occasionally pinches himself when he realizes what his life and career have become. Without saying as much, he acknowledges his life as being an inspiration to others who have encountered major problems with substance abuse.

"They look at where I was, and they look at where I am now," he said. "And they say if he can do it, then maybe I can, too."