08/31/2004 12:00AM

Gomez: Bootstraps in hand

Garrett Gomez (above), who last raced in Southern California at the 2002 Oak Tree meeting, spent several months in what he calls a "brutal" behavior-modification program.

DEL MAR, Calif. - A bit older, a bit heavier, and, he believes, a whole lot wiser, jockey Garrett Gomez was at Del Mar on Tuesday morning, working horses in preparation for a return to riding for the first time in nearly two years.

Gomez, 32, last rode in Southern California at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting in October 2002. Beset by marital and substance-abuse problems, Gomez left this circuit and rode briefly at Sunland Park before going AWOL.

In recent months, Gomez has completed a lengthy substance-abuse program, and steadily went about the process of being re-licensed by the California Horse Racing Board. His license had expired in January 2003.

On Monday afternoon, Gomez was granted a conditional license by the racing board. According to Mike Marten, a spokesman for the board, Gomez's license is similar to the one under which Patrick Valenzuela rode in that it requires hair-follicle testing, random drug testing, and consistent attendance at after-care meetings.

"He can exercise horses as of today, and he can start riding when Fairplex begins on Sept. 9," Marten said Tuesday.

Gomez will be represented by agent Jim Pegram, who had been without a rider since being fired by David Flores earlier this year. Both Gomez and Pegram were at Del Mar on Tuesday, re-establishing contacts. Gomez worked two horses Tuesday morning. He still needs to lose a few pounds to be at or near his old riding weight, so he begged off when a friend invited him to breakfast.

Gomez said he left California in October 2002 because "I was looped."

He said, "My family life was not very good. Everything kind of caved in on me.

"I grew up around the track. This is all I know. There's a lot of alcohol and stuff that's acceptable around here. After the races, people drink. My mom drank. My dad drank. It wasn't a big deal. But it became a problem. It took me places I didn't want to go."

Gomez credited a lengthy stay at Impact, a private facility in Pasadena, Calif., for getting his life back on course.

"I was there for three or four months, and then came and went for another two," Gomez said. "It's a behavior-modification place. You look at your behavior and the way you handle situations. At the beginning of the process, I didn't see I had a problem. I went to a couple of other facilities on my own and couldn't get it done.

"This last one wasn't a place I wanted to stay. The program was tough and brutal. They take everything away from you. They take away all your self-esteem and then build it from the bottom up. It's like the last house on the hill. I wouldn't send my dog there, but I say that in a positive way. I owe my life to that place, even if it doesn't work out as far as riding."

Gomez said his estranged wife, Pam, got him into the facility. They have two children together. Gomez has two other children from a previous marriage. Gomez said he, Pam, and their two kids were going to the beach on Tuesday.

Gomez said he has been sober for 10 months. "Completely free of any substances since Oct. 27," he said.

He said trainer Leonard Duncan has been one of his biggest supporters throughout the past two years.

"I found out who my friends really were," Gomez said. "Even though there was a chance I might not come back and ride again, they were there for me. I didn't know if I wanted to come back, but as time went on, I missed it. As time went on, I missed my calling. God gave me talent, and I want to put it to good use."

Gomez was one of the leading jockeys on this circuit before his fall. His biggest wins at Del Mar came in 2000 and 2001, when he captured consecutive runnings of the Pacific Classic with Skimming.

During to face Domestic Dispute

During, who finished fifth in the Pacific Classic, will return just two weeks later for Sunday's Grade 2, $250,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap at one mile. In his final work for that race, During worked a half-mile in 48.40 seconds on Tuesday morning with exercise rider Dana Barnes.

"We took a chance going a mile and a quarter last time," said During's trainer, Bob Baffert. "The track was kind of funny. This hasn't been the usual Del Mar. The track has been real cuppy."

In addition to During, the Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap is expected to include Domestic Dispute, Lundy's Liability, Rushin' to Altar, Supah Blitz, and Touch the Wire.

Domestic Dispute, who comes off a second-place finish to Kela in the Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Handicap, is the likely favorite. He worked five furlongs Tuesday morning in 1:02.20 for trainer Patty Gallagher.

Domestic Dispute, During, and Lundy's Liability have been assigned co-high weight of 117 pounds for the race. Lundy's Liability, a Brazilian import now trained by Bobby Frankel, won the United Arab Emirates Derby in March.

Frankel has Palomar heavies

Etoile Montante and Intercontinental, both trained by Frankel, are the co-highweights at 120 pounds for Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 Palomar Breeders' Cup Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on turf for older fillies and mares. Humberto Ascanio, the Del Mar-based assistant to Frankel, said Tuesday he was not sure if only one filly, or both, would compete in the race.

Both Etoile Montante and Intercontinental are owned by the Juddmonte Farms of Prince Khalid Abdullah. Etoile Montante had a brutal trip finishing fourth as the odds-on favorite in Del Mar's Osunitas Handicap on Aug. 11. Intercontinental was sent west after finishing fifth on a yielding course as the odds-on favorite in Saratoga's Diana Handicap.

Others expected for the Palomar include Fun House, Katdogawn, Makeup Artist, Notting Hill, Red Rioja, and Tangle.

Red Rioja worked a half-mile on Del Mar's main track in 50 seconds on Tuesday morning for trainer Ben Cecil.

Leading jockey, trainer up for grabs

With one week remaining in the meeting, both the jockey and trainer races are tight.

Tyler Baze is atop the jockeys' standings with 48 victories, but Corey Nakatani won a dozen races over the preceding six days to close to within three, with 45 victories.

Doug O'Neill and Jeff Mullins have been in a pitched battle for leading trainer throughout the meet. O'Neill leads narrowly, 24-23. Baffert, who has won seven straight Del Mar training titles, is third with 16 victories.