01/02/2007 1:00AM

Gomez begins new year with a bang


ARCADIA, Calif. - For Garrett Gomez, 2006 was a breakthrough year. He led the nation's riders in purse earnings, and is considered - along with Edgar Prado - one of the two leading candidates to be named the Eclipse Award-winning jockey for the year.

Gomez got off to a fast start in the new year. On Monday at Santa Anita, he won three races, including a pair of Grade 3 stakes. That put a smile on his face, as did the fans who shouted "happy birthday" to Gomez as he walked back to the jockeys' room after the last race. Happy 35th, indeed.

"After opening day, I didn't have a whole lot of luck," Gomez said, referring to the start of the Santa Anita meet Dec. 26. "This was a nice birthday present. You don't win for a few days, and then you win three, and two graded stakes. I learned to quit asking why. Whatever's in store from the man upstairs."

It hardly seems possible that Gomez is a little more than two years removed from being out of the game. His comeback from substance abuse issues has been remarkable. To show his appreciation, Gomez last week made a $10,000 donation to the Winners Foundation, which helps racetrackers with substance abuse and emotional issues.

Gomez's stakes victories Monday were thrilling to watch. In both the $116,100 Monrovia Handicap for female turf sprinters and the $110,900 El Conejo Handicap for male dirt sprinters Gomez rode horses who closed from last to first in the final quarter mile.

Society Hostess captured the Monrovia with an electrifying run that carried her past all 11 rivals in the final 300 yards. She was last crossing the dirt portion of the 6 1/2-furlong downhill course, then closed, as track commentator Trevor Denman said, "like a blur."

"I've seen a lot of races on this course, and I've never seen a horse do that," said Gomez's agent, Ron Anderson.

Society Hostess is trained by Christophe Clement, whose assistant Nicholas Bachalard saddled her.

"That was a very good turn of foot," Bachalard said. "We got the year off to a good start."

In the 5 1/2-furlong El Conejo, Harvard Avenue nosed out his Doug O'Neill-trained stablemate Areyoutalkintome in the final jump. He passed all eight rivals in the stretch.

Herpesvirus impacts San Miguel

E Z Warrior, who won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship last summer, is scheduled to return to the races on Sunday in the $75,000 San Miguel Stakes for 3-year-olds, but the race is in jeopardy, in part because horses based in northern California are not allowed to leave the area because of the equine herpesvirus quarantine.

Two who were expected to run in the San Miguel, Another Kris and Vicarino, cannot leave the Bay Area. Vicarino won the Stinson Beach Stakes Monday at Golden Gate. Of the remaining eight nominees to the six-furlong race, only about half are likely to run, including Desert Code, who was a fast maiden winner at Hollywood Park on Dec. 17 for trainer David Hofmans, and possibly Noble Court, a recent Hollywood maiden winner for John Sadler.

"We're going to do our best to make the race go," said Rick Hammerle, Santa Anita's racing secretary.

E Z Warrior, who cost $1.2 million at auction last year, is unbeaten in two starts. He defeated maidens on June 18, then won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship on July 4. After that, according to trainer Bob Baffert, he battled shin problems.

"He's ready to run now," Baffert said. "I've got him on the Cushion Track at Hollywood. He's doing great."

E Z Warrior is owned by Ahmed Zayat. Two of Zayat's best runners, Downthedustyroad and Point Ashley, are scheduled to leave Baffert's barn on Thursday and be flown to Kentucky to be sold as racing and breeding prospects.

Downthedustyroad won last week's Grade 1 La Brea Stakes. Point Ashley, the Del Mar Debutante winner, has not raced since finishing second in the Oak Leaf Stakes three months ago.

"She's just in light training," Baffert said. "She needed time off."

Four-pack of stakes

In addition to the San Miguel, Santa Anita will have the Grade 2, $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap for female turf runners on Sunday, and on Saturday will present two more stakes, the Grade 2, $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap for older distance runners, and the Grade 3, $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.

The 1 1/8-mile San Gorgonio is expected to lure the unlucky Three Degrees, who was second in the Matriarch Stakes and two other stakes in her last four starts. Others likely for the San Gorgonio are Beautyandthebeast, Citronnade, Grande Melody, Rahys' Appeal, Ready to Please, Singhalese, and possibly Aubonne.

Grande Melody, who won the Dahlia Handicap in her last start Dec. 18, worked five furlongs in 1:01.40 on Hollywood Park's Cushion Track surface on Tuesday morning for trainer Patrick Biancone.

The 1 1/16-mile San Pasqual is the first step for older horses on the road to the Santa Anita Handicap. Declan's Moon, the champion 2-year-old male of 2004, will try to end a three-race losing streak in the San Pasqual. His rivals are expected to include Buckland Manor, Dixie Meister, Preachinatthebar, Spellbinder, That's an Outrage, and possibly Billy Allen and Cheroot.

Preachinatthebar worked a half-mile in 46.60 seconds on Tuesday at Santa Anita for Baffert. It was the fastest time of 16 at the distance. Cheroot worked six furlongs in 1:14.20 at Santa Anita. Both he and Billy Allen are trained by Darrell Vienna.

The Santa Ysabel, also at 1 1/16 miles, offers Mistical Plan a chance make amends for her eighth-place finish as the 5-2 favorite in last month's Hollywood Starlet. She is expected to be challenged by Back in the Shade, Baroness Thatcher, Runway Rosie, and possibly Adoradora.

Baroness Thatcher worked five furlongs from the gate at Hollywood Park on Tuesday in 59.40 seconds, the best time of 13 at the distance. She is now trained by Biancone. Adoradora blew out a half-mile in 46.40 seconds, the best time of 16 at the distance on Tuesday at Santa Anita, for trainer Debbie O'Brien.

Wait worth it for Ladies Bet

After two interrupted attempts at getting Ladies Bet to the races, she finally made it in October, then took to the turf, winning second time out against maidens. Her trainer, Ray Bell, is hoping she can make it two straight wins in Thursday's fourth race, a first-level allowance for California-bred female turf runners.

"She seems like the kind who might improve with age and seasoning," Bell said of Ladies Bet, 4. "When we first had her, she had issues behind. We turned her out. When she came back in, she gave the impression she was rather immature. She had mushy ankles. So, we turned her out again."

The third time worked. Ladies Bet was eighth in a dirt sprint prep on Oct. 8 before moving to turf Oct. 20, stretching out to a mile, and winning.

"She's coming up to the race good," Bell said of Thursday's fourth race. "Hopefully there will be a bit of speed to prompt the pace a little bit."