12/10/2007 12:00AM

Gomez a cinch to win Eclipse

EmailINGLEWOOD, Calif. - The riders involved in the dead heat for the win Friday night in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot pretty much boiled down the 2007 North American jockey drama to its essentials. Calvin Borel got all the headlines, along with a free dinner at the White House, while no one matched Garrett Gomez for sucking up mountains of cash, probably enough by the end of the year to set the all-time mark.

Including a split of the Delta purse, the horses ridden by Gomez have sailed past $23 million, more than twice Borel's highly respectable $10 million. But Borel goes home to a Kentucky Derby trophy, courtesy of Street Sense, so he won't be too disappointed when Gomez wins his first Eclipse Award for a full season of sustained excellence at the very top of the game.

Those Eclipse Awards ballots are arriving this week, and if Gomez does not come out on top, there will be an investigation. Not one of those half-hearted congressional things, either. A real investigation, with lie detectors and truth serum and maybe some light waterboarding (CIA approved).

Certainly, there are several other riders who deserve to have their 2007 campaigns savored in the cold light of December, including John Velazquez and Edgar Prado, winners of the last three Eclipse Awards, who did not allow major injuries to derail their careers, and Robby Albarado, who rose to great occasions aboard Curlin.

Gomez, though, towered over them all, hopscotching the nation, setting a record for stakes wins, leading meets, and leaving his imprint on many of America's best events. He won the first Grade 1 race of the season in the Santa Monica Handicap aboard Pussycat Doll and on Saturday he took one of the last, when he gave Aaron and Marie Jones's Sunriver a deceptively simple tour of the Hollywood grass in the 1 1/2-mile Turf Cup to win by nearly three.

Taking a break after the Turf Cup, Gomez was assaulted with the impertinent idea that his 2007 season has been a greedy display of excess, especially in the wake of a 2006 performance during which he topped the purse standings at $20 million and finished second to Prado in the Eclipse race. The rider perched on a lunch room stool and smiled from beneath his dark brows and hungry cheeks.

"I'm the kind of guy who can win 10 and wonder why I didn't win 11," Gomez said. "I guess that's the addict in me - always wanting more. But how can I be anything less than grateful for even getting the chance to be in this position."

It is no secret that the addict in Gomez used to be in charge of the whole show. Gomez is forthright about his grim history with drugs, a history that includes a black hole of rehabs, relapses, and even jail time, only a few years ago. That Gomez is among the living, let alone a champion athlete, is a minor miracle.

"People don't realize how easy it is to go back to all that," Gomez said. "That's why I work hard to stay away from the kind of people who can set me up for a fall. And it's my responsibility. As the saying goes, no one can set you up better than yourself."

Gomez knows he'd be in trouble without the support of his wife, Pam, and their two young children. Still, his job splits them up while the kids attend school in California and he rides in New York and Kentucky in the spring and the fall.

"Pam and I have had long talks about it," Gomez said. "It's hard on all of us. But we also know how hard it is to stay on top in this game once you've gotten there, it takes some sacrifice. So as long as opportunities present themselves, I'll seize them."

The Eclipse Award would be nice, Gomez concedes, but as far as he is concerned, the work has to be its own reward.

"I'm trying to improve, to be better this year than I was last year," he said. "If you're out there trying to win awards, you're not doing your job."

The job can't be done much better. Gomez and his agent, Ron Anderson, have become a well-oiled ATM, and as far as the public knows, they made only one mistake in 2007. It was, however, a whopper, when Gomez took the mount on Hard Spun for the Belmont Stakes while Todd Pletcher hemmed and hawed about running Rags to Riches, aboard whom Gomez was 4 for 4. She ran, and won, under John Velazquez.

"That was very disappointing," Gomez said. "I'm still not over it. But we made so many right decisions, I shouldn't complain. Anyway, she gave me the best experience of the year when she won the Kentucky Oaks. That's a race I think every rider wants on his record."

Gomez is in his 20th year of riding, but he is only 35 (his birthday is New Year's Day), and his record figures to grow. Informed that he is eligible to be nominated to the Hall of Fame, his reaction was both skeptical and self-effacing.

"I am?" Gomez said. "But I haven't won the Kentucky Derby yet. Heck, I haven't even hit the board!"