06/10/2007 11:00PM

Gomez's loss proves Velazquez's gain


ELMONT, N.Y. - Garrett Gomez enjoyed the best year of his career in 2006, in part due to the misfortune of John Velazquez. On Saturday, Velazquez enjoyed arguably the best day of his career at the expense of Gomez.

Though Gomez had won four consecutive races on the filly Rags to Riches this year, it was Velazquez who was aboard for her crowning achievement, Saturday's stirring head victory over Preakness winner Curlin in the $1 million Belmont Stakes. Meanwhile, Gomez trudged home fourth aboard Hard Spun, the Kentucky Derby runner-up.

While Velazquez was basking in the thrill of the history-making moment - and his first victory in a Triple Crown race - Gomez was left with the empty feeling of what could have been. He tried to hide his disappointment of not being aboard the first filly to win the Belmont in 102 years.

"This game ain't about me, it's about these animals," Gomez said about an hour after the race. "My job is to be the best passenger I can be. I'm happy for the filly; I'm very proud of her. I'm glad she has gotten to show how good she really is."

Gomez, 35, was not on Rags to Riches because he and his agent, Ron Anderson, had taken a call on Hard Spun two weeks before the Belmont. At the time, Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Rags to Riches, had yet to commit to running her in the race. Pletcher didn't do so until five days before the race. Larry Jones, the trainer of Hard Spun, would not let Gomez out of the commitment.

"I knew she was a special filly," Gomez said. "I knew she had an opportunity to win this race. The horse I was on had a good opportunity to win this race. We were happy with the situation we were in."

Gomez had become the regular rider of Rags to Riches in part because of a relationship he developed with Pletcher last year. In late April 2006, in a race at Keeneland, Pletcher's go-to rider, Velazquez, was injured in a spill. While Velazquez only missed six weeks, it was during the Triple Crown season, and Pletcher summoned Gomez to be Velazquez's replacement.

Pletcher and Gomez enjoyed tremendous success throughout the year - even when Velazquez got healthy - winning such major events as the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, Hopeful, and American Oaks. Some of those wins were on horses Velazquez had ridden. Gomez ended up leading the nation in purse money won, with more than $20 million.

"He came back, he rode a lot of horses for Todd, and was very successful," said Velazquez, who is 39 days older than Gomez. "It's unfortunate for him today that he was committed to another horse and he lost the mount. I think that's the way the business goes. He gained a lot last year, he lost one today."

Coincidentally, Gomez and Velazquez shared a flight to Canada on Sunday to ride fillies for Pletcher. Gomez finished fourth on Christies Treasure, while Velazquez was last on Belleplaine.

In the Belmont, Velazquez also had a commitment to ride a different horse, but Greg Fox, the trainer of Slew's Tizzy, let him out of it. Rafael Bejarano rode Slew's Tizzy, who finished last.

Velazquez said Gomez approached him Saturday morning with a few tips on how to ride Rags to Riches.

"I had watched all her races, and the only thing that I was concerned with [was] he never really hit the filly very much," Velazquez said. "He told me if you shake her up she's not going to need a lot of the whip, she'll respond. She's going to run the best she can without hitting her."

"I told him you could spank her a couple of times, but she's as honest as they come, she's genuine," Gomez said. "When it's time to lay it down, she lays it down. I gave him as much a heads-up as I could give him without giving him too much information for him to beat me."

Gomez actually thought he was in position to win the race around the far turn. He had a stranglehold on Hard Spun through slow early fractions, but at the three-furlong pole, he was sitting second behind C P West.

"At the three-eighths pole my heart was growing," said Gomez, who was beginning to envision a victory.

But from that point to the quarter pole, Curlin came to his inside, and Rags to Riches ran up alongside him from the outside. While those two accelerated on, Hard Spun was stuck in neutral.

"When they came up on either side of me, I pushed the button to go - he couldn't quicken with them," Gomez said.

Meanwhile, Velazquez was embroiled in a fierce stretch battle with Curlin, prevailing by a head at the wire.

After the race, Velazquez brought Rags to Riches halfway up the stretch, to let the small but appreciative Belmont Park crowd of 46,870 show their appreciation.

"She did something they hadn't done in 100 years," Velazquez said. "The crowd responded really good. it's good for the game.

"I'm glad that Todd did it; I'm glad that she won, and great for me that I was on her."

Even Pletcher, who had begun using Velazquez almost exclusively several years ago, felt it was appropriate that Velazquez was on for his first Triple Crown victory.

"What goes around comes around," Pletcher said. "It was fitting that he was on the filly when she won."