12/13/2002 1:00AM

Gomez enjoys working vacation


SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Garrett Gomez surprised a lot of people when he announced his intention to skip Hollywood Park's fall meet and ride at Sunland Park instead. But to Gomez, the decision made perfect sense.

Gomez's father, Louie, had ridden at Sunland in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and Garrett had spent a good deal of his youth on Sunland's backstretch.

"I had planned on taking a break during this period anyway, to get away from the pressures of living and working in L.A.," Gomez said. "When a friend of mine told me how Sunland's purses were really good now, it all seemed to fit.

"Coming back here was a chance to see a lot of the people I knew as a kid. For instance, Dominic Rivera, who is my agent here, was a buddy of mine when we were growing up. Fred Danley, for whom I rode Tornado's Jack to win the Red Hedeman Mile a few weeks ago, I have known all my life, and that was very nice to win that race for him. Also, the lifestyle here is very laid-back, which is just what I wanted."

For someone on a working vacation, Gomez is putting on quite a show, having won with 22 of his 43 mounts going into Friday's card. Some people attribute Gomez's success to the fact that he has been getting his choice of mounts in many races. But even so, it's no easy task to pick 50 percent winners and ride at such a high level for several weeks.

Gomez's working vacation also is serving a practical purpose. "This way when Santa Anita opens I will still be fit and light," he said. "If I had just done nothing all this time I wouldn't be as ready when the big meet starts. I will ride here Sunday the 22nd, be home [in Los Angeles] by the 23rd to spend Christmas with my wife, Pamela, and our son, Jared, then be ready to ride on the 26th."

One of Gomez's strengths at this meet has been his ability to take his mounts far off the pace - often they have looked hopelessly beaten at the quarter pole - and still get up at the wire. "Well, that is not actually my style," Gomez said, "but this track doesn't really play like a West Coast track, but more like an Eastern one. I realized right off that the speed will come back to you in a lot of cases, so I've ridden a lot of races accordingly."

Gomez has had success on the national stage since his time here as a youngster, but it is important to him that people know he hasn't changed. "I want people to see I am still a down-to-earth guy, and that success hasn't gone to my head," he said.

Although Gomez may downplay any celebrity he has achieved, his time here has added a measure of style and excitement to the early stages of this meet.

Simulcast market expanding

The purse structure and quality of racing here has been steadily improving since the introduction of slot machines in 1999, but it wasn't until this year that simulcast coordinator Charles Crisman could markedly expand Sunland's simulcast market.

Among the outlets that are taking the Sunland signal are Churchill Downs's Trackside, Hoosier Park, and The Meadowlands.

The biggest simulcasting coup has been New York City OTB's decision to begin taking Sunland on Tuesday afternoons. On each of the two Tuesdays that NYC OTB has taken Sunland's card, more than $500,000 has been wagered there, pushing Sunland's all-sources handle over the $1 million mark each day.

"Well, it has been a process," Crisman said. "This season it has all started to come together. The good part is this could just be the beginning."