05/05/2011 10:57AM

Gomez keeps roses in focus after last year's unlucky Kentucky Derby

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Garrett Gomez would just as soon forget the 2010 Kentucky Derby, if that’s okay. That was the day he tried to win the race breaking from the No. 1 post aboard the well-regarded Lookin At Lucky and was thwarted at every possible turn. Lucky lived to tell the adventurous tale – he finished sixth to Super Saver – but Gomez lost the mount and had to watch as the colt went on to win the Preakness, the Haskell, and the 3-year-old championship.

So it goes.

Being a four-time national money champ and two-time winner of the Eclipse Award, Gomez somehow found a way to suck it up. After losing Lookin At Lucky he spent most of the rest of 2010 looking forward to the next time Blame would run. Their association soared, with wins in the Stephen Foster and the Whitney, reaching its pinnacle on a starlit autumn night at Churchill Downs, six months and five days after the Derby, when they collaborated to hand Zenyatta the only defeat of her career in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Now Gomez is back at Churchill Downs, determined to make the best of his eighth opportunity in America’s most famous horse race. This time around he will be riding the Irish mystery horse, Master of Hounds, for the Coolmore brand, and by sunset Wednesday Gomez felt that he had at least dodged one serious bullet. His colt drew post position 11, smack in the middle of the 20-horse field.

Not that Master of Hounds doesn’t have a few other knocks against him, beyond the fact that “hound” is part of his name. He has never raced on dirt. He has never won a stakes. And in his only race of 2011 he was beaten on a synthetic surface by a filly. This is not exactly the way Spectacular Bid came up to the Derby. Gomez was asked to offer any possible hint of a silver lining.

“The good thing about him is he’s well traveled, and he’s run in big fields before,” Gomez said. “It just becomes a matter of how he adapts to the dirt, getting hit in the face and such.”

Should Gomez be encouraged by the reaction of Master of Hounds, the rider will be able to tap into a pedigree that offers Kingmambo on top and a Sadler’s Wells mare on the bottom. For those keeping score, this is the coveted Mr. Prospector-Northern Dancer cross, fancied by a generation of breeding connoisseurs.

Master of Hounds came off the bench for trainer Aidan O’Brien in late March to finish second in the UAE Derby, at a mile and three-sixteenths. Khawlah, the filly who beat him a nose, is currently among the betting favorites to win next month’s Epsom Oaks.

“There’s a different rhythm to turf races or races run on synthetics,” Gomez noted. “But this colt did run in the Breeders’ Cup race for 2-year-olds on the grass last year at Churchill Downs, so he knows what an American pace is like.”

It can be argued that Gomez is the most accomplished American jockey without a Triple Crown event to his name. The closest he came was in 2007, when he was riding Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches for Coolmore and trainer Todd Pletcher. Given a choice between the filly and Derby runner-up Hard Spun in the Belmont Stakes, Gomez went with the colt. Guess who won.

Gomez, who is 39, at least can point to his 10 victories in Breeders’ Cup events along with his two Eclipse Awards, credentials good enough to land him a spot on the Hall of Fame ballot the past two years. Still, there is nothing like a Triple Crown race to put a jockey’s reputation over the top. As far as the Derby is concerned, it hasn’t been for lack of trying.

Before Lookin At Lucky, the Gomez Derby history included Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile (2nd in 2009), eventual Hollywood Derby winner Court Vision (13th in 2008), eventual Haskell winner Any Given Saturday (eighth in 2007) and Wood Memorial winner Bob and John (13th in 2006).

“I thought Pioneerof the Nile was going to kick on and be a winner, then Calvin come flying up the fence on a horse we couldn’t figure out who it was,” Gomez said. It was Borel all right, aboard the 50-1 Mine That Bird.

“After the race we had to gallop back and look at the program to find out who’d won the Kentucky Derby,” Gomez added.

There were two earlier Derby mounts for Gomez, in 1994 and 1995, followed by that 11-year gap. Let’s just say it was a different version of Garrett Gomez back then.

“I was a little wild and running free,” Gomez said. “It catches up and makes you slow down after a while, though.”

After a rocketing start to his career, Gomez spent the better part of three years in virtual exile from the game in the early 2000’s for drug and alcohol abuse, at one point doing jail time. His return and ascension to the top of his profession has been not only a testimony to his ability, but one of the game’s good news stories as well.

“I had a lot of help from a lot of people getting me on the right track,” said Gomez, whose forthright disclosure of his troubles has been a key part of his ongoing recovery. “Were it not for my wife Pam and good friends, I wouldn’t be riding horses like Blame, or races like the Kentucky Derby.”

Such grounding has kept the Derby quest of Gomez in perspective. Lookin At Lucky’s bad trip was a stroll through sweet clover compared to the hell he’d put himself through already. And as far as that goes, there’s nothing says any jock is owed a Kentucky Derby.

“Not only do you have to have a quality horse, you have to be very, very lucky on that day,” Gomez said. “You have one little stumble of any sort in a 20-horse field and you’re pretty much done. There’s no real room for mistakes.”

Gomez says there is no way to know how a colt like Master of Hounds will handle his first swing over an American main track, especially in a stampede like the Derby. The suspense, at least, will be over quickly.

“Sometimes when the dirt starts hitting them their action changes,” Gomez said. “We’ll find out in the first hundred yards or so how he’s handling it and go from there.”