12/15/2006 12:00AM

Happiness off track can carry over


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Garrett Gomez can be forgiven if he thinks of his life in terms of yearly increments. After all, he was born on Jan.o1, 1972.

When he arrives at his 35th birthday on Jan. 1, 2007, it seems a sure thing that Gomez will be celebrating his first national championship. Entering this weekend, his 2006 mounts already had rung up $21.5 million in earnings, as reported in the Daily Racing Form. This was good for a lead of nearly $2 million on Edgar Prado, his closest pursuer, and figured to get Gomez plenty of support in the Eclipse Award balloting currently under way.

Still, the idea of either an Eclipse or a championship for Gomez seems borderline outrageous, given the fact that just two years ago he was struggling to reclaim any kind of career at all as a result of drug and alcohol addiction, not to mention time served in jail.

This is the same Gomez who emerged from a successful Midwestern career to tackle Southern California in the late 1990's, winning back-to-back runnings of the Pacific Classic in 2000 and 2001 and a host of other top stakes for front-line stables. Proud of his sobriety after abusing any number of substances in his younger riding days, he found new life in California, started a new

family. . . and then threw it all away.

The resurrection of Garrett Gomez brings to mind the fortunes of Patrick Valenzuela, another gifted jockey plagued by substance abuse who pulled himself back to the top ranks of the game.

There are significant differences, however. Valenzuela, 42, is defensive about even the sketchiest details of his battles with addiction. Though certainly not obligated to share his story, his approach verges on denial that a problem has ever existed at all. And while the tales he tells to explain away behavior - ankle twisted at home, child hospitalized, marital strife, girlfriend's pecadillos, bad back coupled with emotional problems - could all be absolutely true, there has been sufficient doubt at the official level to put his license in habitual jeopardy, making him one of the most litigious jockeys in the history of the sport.

Gomez, on the other hand, wears his story of recovery on his sleeve, not necessarily Oprah-ready, but out there getting fresh air for anyone who wants to ask.

"If I hide anything, I've still got those skeletons in my closet," Gomez said. "If I do that, I'll be going right back to the same place. And I don't want to go back there, ever."

Gomez tested himself thoroughly in 2006 by heading East, hooking up with the Todd Pletcher stable, and building an impressive business. Entering the weekend, his 12 victories in Grade 1 events led the nation. Significantly, they were accomplished on 11 different horses.

At the same time, Gomez had to leave his family - wife Pam, son Jared, and daughter Amanda - behind in their California home for most of the long season.

"I'd spent the last three years trying to keep my family together after all I'd put them through," Gomez said. "They were the reason I made it, and to be without them all that time, I can't tell you how hard that was. But I had help, especially from my agent, Ron Anderson, and my New York valet, Tony Milan. They kept me busy."

By his own tally, Gomez traveled 80,000 air miles in 2006, following not only the stars of the Pletcher stable but also winning big ones for Bob Baffert, Aidan O'Brien, and the Godolphin Stable of Mohammed al-Maktoum. Gomez describes the business end of his life these days as nothing but fun.

"I don't want this to sound wrong," Gomez said, "because there's nothing easy about what we do. But what I went through, and what I go through on a daily basis, to keep myself mentally and emotionally sound and stay on the right track - compared to all that, riding horses is easy, man."

Gomez makes it look easy, too, combining the long-backed grace of the classic Baeza profile with a picturesque finish, everything moving in athletic accord. Dave Hofmans, for whom Gomez rides Runway Rosie in the $250,000 Hollywood Starlet on Sunday, compares his rider to the ice-blooded Hall of Famer Eddie Delahoussaye in both style and potential substance.

"Like Eddie, Garrett's always got a horse with something left, saving something," Hofmans noted.

Along with most of the top Southern California trainers, Hofmans gave Gomez plenty of chances when he first came to California in 1998.

"He seems overall happier in his whole life now - at least that's what shows through when he rides," Hofmans said. "He's trying to be helpful, whereas before he was sort of grouchy and not wanting to talk about the horses much. He was concentrating on other problems in his life, I guess.

"His riding itself hasn't changed that much, but his maturity has," Hofmans added. "He's become more patient. That, combined with his ability, has allowed him to take his riding to a different level."

In terms of the 2006 money-winning championship, it is a level occupied by Gomez alone.