07/18/2013 2:00PM

Exercise riders: Humberto Gomez

Barbara D. Livingston

Birthdate: Aug. 21, 1974
Birthplace: Mexico City, Mexico
Parents involved in racing? No, but he says his father, Antonio Portela Gomez, was a racing “super fan”
Favorite racetrack: Santa Anita
Favorite horses he has ridden: Intercontinental, Medaglia d’Oro, Square Eddie, Mentor Cane
Favorite horse he never rode: Zenyatta
Favorite jockey: Jerry Bailey
Regular circuit: Primarily California, currently New York
Goal as a rider: To ride a Kentucky Derby contender at Churchill Downs

Humberto Gomez remembers the moment he decided to become a jockey.

His father had taken him to the racetrack, and he’d watched races on TV, but Gomez had been unimpressed. It seemed that whichever horse broke out of the gate first won. But then there was that momentous race – the one where the horse came from dead last and zoomed by everyone to win. That caught the 13-year-old’s attention.

“I love speed,” Gomez says. “I thought if the horse picked up that much speed at the end, it would feel really good to ride it.”

By then Gomez already rode, in a manner of speaking, in his hometown of Mexico City. He put buckets on top of his grandmother’s donkeys and rode them to go fetch water. But speed?

“I always tried to go fast, but trust me, donkeys don’t go fast,” he says with a mischievous smile. “They’re not hard to ride or very tall, but they’re very moody.

“Sometimes they’d stop, and they wouldn’t go. You’d have to wait until they got in a good mood and then keep going. So you’d get a little stick from the trees to encourage them. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.”

Craving more speed than donkeys could provide, Gomez asked his stepfather to enroll him in a riding school. Because he was underage, his mother provided a permission slip.

His first day didn’t go to plan. His teacher asked if he knew how to ride, and he said yes, neglecting to mention the complete answer would have been, “Yes, donkeys.”

The second horse he rode ran off. The horse kept barreling ahead at full steam despite Gomez’s efforts to pull him up.
“It seemed like he wasn’t ever going to stop, so if he’s not stopping, I am!”

Gomez bailed.

He remembers both his body and his ego hurting, but he kept thinking of the adrenaline rush he’d felt on that horse – it was scary, yes, but so exciting. He went back the next day.

Gomez learned how to use his hands and legs on a horse, how to balance, how to stop. After proving he could break a horse from a starting gate, he shifted to a racetrack trainer. He galloped horses, cleaned stalls, and ponied, for free, in the afternoons. In his spare time he and a friend watched TV as an exhilarating rivalry unfolded in the United States between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. They dreamed of America.

Eight months after he enrolled in riding school, his name appeared in a racing program. With another letter of permission from his mother, 15-year-old Humberto Gomez was now a jockey. He remembers his first race, at the beautiful Hipodromo de las Americas, as if it were yesterday.

When the moment finally came, Gomez wasn’t nervous. He’d studied countless other races and knew how other jockeys rode. He knew his mount, Forindi, was a come-from-behind type, and Gomez knew he should be patient.

As it turned out, he was too patient. He bided his time until the quarter pole, when he began hustling his mount. The horse closed strongly. Gomez remembers the extra-bright light of the finish line as his horse swept past the front-runner. He thought he won, but he lost by a nose.

Although statistics are not readily available, Gomez said he rode for six or seven years and won more than 700 races before the track closed.

With no track, Gomez soon headed north, but he realized his visa was for jockeys, and he’d have to ride or leave. His choice was easy. Vancouver’s Hastings Park beckoned. Gomez rode four months before a horse broke down underneath him, causing him to fall and break his collarbone. Two months later, in his return, his mount clipped heels, and he broke his collarbone again.

“I told my friend that I’m just going to go back to my country,” he says.

Gomez’s friend persuaded him to go to California instead, and he soon settled in near Hollywood Park. Because of his injuries, difficulties maintaining his weight, and the language barrier, he became an exercise rider. Bobby Frankel soon noticed him and, through a Spanish-speaking rider, asked Gomez to work for him. Frankel had a tough horse he felt might be a good fit.

Gomez hadn’t heard of Aptitude but remembers the first time he saw the beautiful 3-year-old in his stall. Just before he mounted the colt, a fellow rider mentioned it was the best horse in the barn, aiming for the Kentucky Derby. That didn’t help Gomez relax.

He was keenly aware of Frankel watching him as he and Aptitude got to the track, and of Aptitude’s power that first morning. He strained to keep the horse from switching leads, to keep him under control, and his arms and legs burned heading back to the barn. Frankel told Gomez he did OK, but next time, let the horse switch leads. Luckily for Gomez, Frankel left for a week and, by the time he returned, Gomez had figured Aptitude out.

For Frankel, Gomez galloped horses such as Megahertz, Intercontinental, and Medaglia d’Oro. Aptitude remains a favorite.

Working for Frankel inspired Gomez to get serious about learning English. He barely knew the language, and Frankel’s New York accent made communication nearly impossible.

What was it like working for Frankel?

“He was really difficult,” Gomez says. “He was a perfectionist, but that’s one thing I liked about him. I like to be under pressure, with people pushing me to the best of my abilities.”

Gomez eventually shifted barns, to Julio Canani and then to Doug O’Neill’s, where he rode until recently. Along the way Gomez has traveled many places, including Dubai, Japan, and numerous U.S. tracks.

He considers the United States home and is thankful for opportunities he’s found here. Usually based at Santa Anita, he has temporarily moved to Belmont, where he, along with his wife, work for John Shirreffs. Two of his morning mounts, Peace and Justice and Mentor Cane, scored impressively recently.

In addition to riding, Gomez is considering eventually becoming an assistant trainer. One of his dreams is to ride a Derby horse at Churchill Downs. He’s come close. He rode Aptitude until the colt went to Churchill, I’ll Have Another for a short time before the Belmont Stakes, and He’s Had Enough last winter at Gulfstream Park.

When not on horseback, his need for speed has occasionally gotten him into trouble. A few speeding tickets have caused him to now drive like “an old man,” he says, laughing. But when changing lanes in traffic, he sometimes chirps as if aboard a Thoroughbred.

If the day comes when he no longer works at the track, Gomez says he thinks he’d enjoy selling cars – fast ones.


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