12/26/2008 1:00AM

Gomez unlikely to cool off now


ARCADIA, Calif. - Friday morning at Santa Anita dawned cold enough to reduce a racetrack full of confused Southern Californians to conversations like . . .

"What's that?"

"I think it's my breath."

"You can see your breath?"

"You should feel my toes."

Big deal. So it's a little nippy. Aloha shirts should not be worn in late December anyway, if at all. Besides, the horses love it when it's cold. They were bouncing around on the track like giddy jackrabbits, fueled by a genetic code that prepares them for winters on the Wyoming plains, not for life in a 10-by-10-foot box stall located a stone's throw from a shopping mall. This, they figure, is the way it is supposed to be. You up there, hang on.

"I'm not sure why they like it so much," said Humberto Ascanio, Bobby Frankel's right-hand man, as he watched mares like Ventura and Stardom Bound gallop and glow. "They just feel better. They eat better. They're brighter. I do know that horses don't like to be hot."

A couple of tough old California jocks could be found Friday morning on the rail at Clocker's Corner, bundled up but easy to recognize, their faces turned toward a shard of thin morning sun. Alex Maese, whose best moments in the saddle included a victory in the 1966 Malibu Stakes aboard Terry's Secret, was trading tales with Larry Gilligan, who did 108 pounds to take the 1956 San Felipe on Social Climber for Charlie Whittingham. A bystander asked them to recall their coldest riding experiences.

"Bowie," replied Gilligan.

"Laurel," chimed Maese.

Let's hear it for Maryland.

"You couldn't see for the snow," Gilligan said. "Lucky for me I was riding for Vanderbilt at the time, so all I had to was sit there on those big old Cadillacs and take a good hold. But cold? I wore one of those head covers that skin divers use."

Maese found himself at Aqueduct at the end of a season with winter bearing down and California beckoning.

"A trainer I was riding for in New York said they'd have 60 horses in Maryland, and would I like to go ride, so I went," said Maese, winner of the 1966 George Woolf Memorial Award. "That first day on a horse it was so cold my eyes watered and the tears froze on my cheeks. A horse stumbled and when I grabbed him I broke a finger. That night I was on a plane for the West Coast."

Garrett Gomez, who turns 37 on New Year's Day, was out early Friday morning to work horses, if anyone was interested. They weren't, so he hunkered down in the jocks' room to await the opening-day bell and allowed himself a few of his own cold-weather memories.

"I was 17, riding at Grand Island, when me and Perry Compton both went down on a frozen racetrack," Gomez said of his time in Nebraska. "They canceled the races after that."

Gomez is on the brink of his third straight national championship, but it is a long way from Nebraska to the top of the heap. Along the way Gomez did winters in Chicago, riding at Hawthorne.

"If it rained, and then the temperature dropped, the racetrack would freeze and clod up real bad," he recalled. "Sometimes they had to cancel because they weren't able to break up the clods. But then you could let it dry out, break it up, and it was a real grainy, freeze-dried track.

"The toughest part about riding in real cold weather is the cold air in your lungs, and then losing the feeling in your hands," Gomez added. "I was young then, and I didn't know there was anything like California, where you never really think about the weather that much."

In 2006 and 2007, Gomez won his national championships with extensive East Coast campaigns. In 2008, he spent most of the season out West, with his family, or in airports, commuting to weekend stakes dates.

"We were in the post parade at Hollywood one day when a jet flew over," Gomez said. "Jose Valdivia points to it and says, 'There goes Go-Go's bedroom!' "

It takes a solid 12 months of injury-free focus to win a North American riding championship, and Gomez was wall-to-wall. Still, were it not for four fabulous days, he and his agent, Ron Anderson, might have been in a battle down to the wire.

First, there was the weekend of Aug. 23-24 when the rider won the $1 million Travers at Saratoga on Saturday and then the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sunday.

Gomez knew that would be tough to top, but he did anyway on Oct. 24 and 25 when he won four of the 14 Breeders' Cup races presented at Santa Anita Park and concluded business that weekend with a $21.6 million total. Robby Albarado, who will finish the season in second on the purse list, currently sits at $17.7 million, which means Gomez could have spent the last two months in Fiji and still bagged the title.

"I don't think Ron would have gone along with that," Gomez said.

Gomez was riding opening day at Santa Anita because he was able to buy his way out of an extra two days of suspensions for a riding infraction in Hong Kong, where he competed during the recent international festival.

"They let me pay a fine - 5,000 for each day - so I start the meet in a hole," Gomez said, adding a wry smile.

It's a pretty good bet he'll dig his way out.