04/26/2017 2:10PM

Hovdey: Hall's call came too late for Gomez


Rudy Alvarado recalls talking to Garrett Gomez for the last time during the summer of 2016. He said Gomez sounded cautiously upbeat, that he was feeling good and living in Arizona. When Alvarado asked if Gomez was contemplating a return to riding, the former four-time national champion said he was not.

Alvarado had no reason not to believe Gomez, although he knew the well-being of the man who had won 13 Breeders’ Cup events was no better than a day-to-day proposition. They had collaborated on the writing of “The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey’s Journey Through Addiction and Salvation,” including the title that said it all. Almost.

The Gomez biography was published five years ago this May. At the time, the rider was recovering from a fractured heel suffered in a fluke accident at Santa Anita. Gomez was widely praised for the biography’s forthright description of his addictions and their terrible impact on his family and his career, as well as an inside look at the resurrection of that career.

“The challenge of the book was that last page and a half – what he wanted the reader to be left with,” said Alvarado, who previously had won the Tony Ryan Book Award for his biography of legendary race-caller Joe Hernandez.

“He didn’t necessarily want it to be dark,” Alvardo said. “He wanted it to be uplifting. He wanted people to know that it was always up to him to maintain, that it was his to keep and his to lose. We talked about that again last summer, and possibly updating the book, since by that time he had stopped riding and gone through rehab again. He said he’d give it some thought.”

Four months later, Gomez was discovered dead in a southern Arizona tribal casino hotel room. The toxicology report found that he perished from an excessive amount of methamphetamine. He was 44.

This week it was announced that Garrett Keith Gomez, winner of 3,769 races and $205 million by his mounts, has been elected to the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. His name will be enshrined this summer along with fellow jockeys Javier Castellano and Victor Espinoza.

It is impossible to appreciate the bittersweet circumstances of the Gomez Hall of Fame election without summoning the name of Chris Antley, whose career as one of the game’s most flamboyantly talented riders ended in a fatal drug frenzy in December 2000. Only a few weeks shy of turning 35, Antley figured to have several more years to add to a record that already included 3,480 wins and two victories in the Kentucky Derby.

It took the Hall of Fame process 15 years after his death to decide that Antley belonged in the Hall of Fame. While he was still alive, Gomez had been nominated and bypassed for the Hall of Fame each year from 2011 to 2016. The fact that he was elected in the first opportunity after his death speaks volumes about both the disconnect between the nominating and the voting process, as well as the mindset of some Hall of Fame voters who prefer to keep the cultural stigma of addiction at arm’s length.

The fact that Gomez was so forthright about his addiction and its consequences set him apart, even in this confessional age. And despite his lonely end, losing the battle he’d fought for so long, he will bring credit to the Hall of Fame. It’s just too bad it did not happen sooner, when it could have meant something to Gomez.

“I’d call him every time he was nominated,” Alvarado said. “His pat comment was, ‘If it happens, great. If it doesn’t I’m not going to worry about it.’ But I think, knowing him, it meant more than winning the Kentucky Derby. I really do.”

And if Gomez had been elected in 2012, while still recovering from his injury? Or 2013, when his comeback included a partnership with champion Beholder? Or in 2014 or 2015, during his self-inflicted exile? Might the story have had a different ending?

“I think so,” Alvarado said. “I think the Hall of Fame would have been a huge lift, and an encouragement for him to get things together and maybe get back in the saddle. People would have reached out to him, called him, wondered how he felt and what it meant to him. I think it would have made him feel like he still mattered, and that he still had something to strive for.”

Posthumous honors are unavoidable. That’s life. In the case of Garrett Gomez, the sport can be grateful that he left an eloquently simple message upon his decision to officially retire, issued through social media in June 2015. If someone could read it at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in August, in lieu of sad speeches, no one would complain:

“I would like to thank everyone in the sport of horse racing for all the support I ever received in my career,” Gomez wrote. “I enjoyed every horse I ever rode and I thank all of them for making my career. I’d like to apologize to all my fans for leaving the sport the way I did. Sometimes you have to do things in life for yourself. I had a lot of awesome moments in this game. BEST GAME IN THE WORLD. THANK YOU HORSE RACING.”