05/27/2005 12:00AM

At home and track, Gomez is winning

Benoit & Associates
Winning the Murray aboard Runaway Dancer is the meet highlight so far for Garrett Gomez.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The closest jockey Garrett Gomez could get to race-riding last May was walking 2-year-olds at the Barretts sale and exercising horses on a local farm. Cocaine and alcohol dependency had left Gomez, a former top rider, out of the sport and estranged from his wife and two small children.

It was, he says, the end of the worst two years of his life, a span when he was arrested for possession of narcotics, spent time in jail, and was thrown out of the house.

And, he was scared his riding career was over.

"I didn't know what I'd do for a living," he said.

A year later, Gomez's life is back in order, helped by friends, family, counselors, and his agent, Jim Pegram.

Gomez, 33, is well established at the top of the jockey standings at Hollywood Park, second only to Victor Espinoza. He is back with his family.

When Gomez recalls the events of the last year, he flashes a quick smile.

"That's a big 180," he said.

Until September of 2004, Gomez had not ridden in Southern California for nearly two years. Working with Bob Fletcher of the Winners Foundation, a program that helps people in the racing industry with substance abuse problems, Gomez approached the California Horse Racing Board in the spring of 2004, seeking a license.

At the time, he was exercising horses at owner-breeder Terry Lovingier's farm in Murrietta, Calif., hoping to prove that he was dedicated to a return. He regained a jockey's license in August, and returned to race-riding at Fairplex Park a month later.

More important, Gomez says, his family life stabilized.

Returning to the daily lives of his wife, Pam, and their two children, Jared, 4, and Amanda, 2, was the biggest factor in enabling his comeback, he says.

"I think one of my successes is trying to find a balance - when to go home and be dad and when to put my game face on as a rider," Gomez said. "I've got to remember to have fun. Sometimes, I forget that. I try so hard and the next thing I know, I'm not enjoying it.

"Sometimes I get a little tired and frustrated. I remind myself I love this job. Now I realize I'm very grateful for my job and family."

Three years ago, Gomez said, he would have shunned his family after a tough day of racing. He was a top 10 rider in Southern California - leading rider at the 1998 Hollywood fall meet, winner of the Pacific Classic in 2000 and 2001 - who was too caught up in racing, occasionally throwing tantrums at his wife, a former pony person and assistant trainer to Kathy Walsh.

"Before, I was very self-centered," he said. "I wanted to be left alone. I'd hole up until I exploded."

Such behavior and the drug abuse led to marital problems.

Gomez recalls an incident in 2003 when he was holed up in a house in Del Mar, unable to quit using drugs even when his wife and Fletcher arrived and asked him to go home.

"When you're using and abusing, you don't realize you can hurt your friends and family," he said. "I thought I was just hurting myself.

"I wanted to go home, but I couldn't set the drugs down to get there. Every time I turned around, I hit a low point."

The cocaine and alcohol problems escalated until Gomez was arrested in Temecula, Calif., in the summer of 2003 for possession of narcotics and spent time in jail.

"Sitting in jail for 40 days was a low point," he said.

As part of an agreement, he was required to participate in a rehabilitation program. Gomez spent nearly six months in the winter of 2003-04 at Impact, a Pasadena rehabilitation facility. When he emerged, he said, his perspective on life had changed.

"All they were asking me to do was be a respectable person in society," he said. "Responsibility had been a downfall before. When I needed to step up to the plate, I'd brush it off.

"Now, I can look at things I did and think, I can laugh at that and how stupid it was."

He says staying busy helps - riding as many races as possible and spending time with his children.

"There was a time when I didn't want to ride that many," he said. "Now I don't want a race off, and I don't want time for my adrenaline to decelerate."

It has been only recently that he has felt comfortable at his family's home in Duarte, Calif.

"Recently, my wife said, 'I'm glad you're back,' " Gomez said. "I felt that right here," he said, touching his heart. "My family life is awesome, my recovery is awesome."

Trainer Leonard Duncan, a close friend of the Gomez family, watched the jockey's life unravel and then come back together. Gomez even stayed with Duncan when he was estranged from his wife.

"I know the pressures this industry can put on a person," Duncan said. "He's got a more stable home life, and he needs that. It's been very remarkable, and I tell him all the time how proud of him I am. I'm overwhelmed at what he's been able to accomplish in the last year."

The comeback has not been without its problems.

Last September, a few weeks after returning, Gomez was arrested on a probation violation for failing to contact his parole officer. He says it was mix-up - an officer had failed to forward his file to a colleague after quitting, leaving Gomez unsure of whom to contact.

Regardless, the end result was an embarrassment - a missed weekend of riding and plenty of talk around the racetrack. Worse, there were drug temptations while in jail.

"That was a distraction I had to go through," he said. "I had an opportunity to use while I was there. I thought, How am I going to get out of this? There were distractions along the way to see if I could go off the deep end."

Little of that is evident on a daily basis at Hollywood Park. Gomez reached the top of the Hollywood Park standings earlier this month, and is battling with Victor Espinoza for the lead. Entering Friday's races, Gomez had won 25 races at the meet, two fewer than Espinoza. For the year, Gomez has won aboard 80 of 495 mounts and earned $3,331,075. A highlight of the first month of the meeting was a win aboard Runaway Dancer in the $350,000 Jim Murray Handicap on May 14.

Making a run at the Hollywood riding title is his latest goal.

"I don't really stop and look at what I've accomplished," he said. "My agent says I need to be proud of what I've done. But I know I'm having a blast."