02/01/2012 4:18PM

Hovdey: Kentucky Derby hopes hard to break

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Benoit & Associates
Out of Bounds, with Garrett Gomez riding, wins the Sham.

Cracked heels are usually a problem in January, what with the cold weather, dry skin, and a natural shyness about regular exfoliation. Then there’s Garrett Gomez and Robby Albarado, who took the problem to extremes.

Last year, on the second day of 2011, Albarado was tossed on the way to the track at Fair Grounds and landed right heel-first on a concrete curb along the fence line of the pathway leading from the paddock. Two weeks later he had surgery to repair the fracture, which was serious enough to require a plate and screws.

This year, on Jan. 8, Gomez suffered a similar fate under similar circumstances. After leaving the paddock for the Daytona Stakes at Santa Anita his mount, Silver Summation, threw a fit and then threw Gomez. He landed feet first in front of the Champions Gift Shop (well-stocked and handsomely appointed, by the way) and would have gotten away with it if his left had not hit the concrete while the right came to gentle rest on the spongy horse path.

A bruised heel is no fun. Your reporter was sidelined with such an injury during the height of his disco years, and tennis was reduced to doubles. But when the bones are shattered, the damage is big-league. Gomez was under the knife less than a week after his fall and was fitted with a protective cast. Now the cast is off and his rehabilitation is well under way.

Gomez was on the Hall of Fame ballot last year and has a good shot to appear again this time around, as does Albarado. Gomez, 40, and Albarado, 38, have had the kind of careers certainly worthy of serious consideration. Albarado has won more races, while Gomez’s mounts have earned more in purses. Both have been major players on the big stage, including the Breeders’ Cup, where Gomez holds the edge. As far as the Triple Crown, Albarado won the Preakness, but neither rider has won a Kentucky Derby.

A Derby win is priority one for both Gomez and Albarado this year. In 2011, Albarado did not let his fractured heel stop him from picking up the ride on a colt named Animal Kingdom for the Kentucky Derby. But a crash at Churchill Downs two days before the race cost Albarado the winning mount on Animal Kingdom, even though he was able to ride and win a race on the Derby undercard.

As if he needs the inspiration, Gomez has a white-stockinged chestnut named Out of Bounds awaiting his return, with Kentucky Derby contender written all over him. Owned by Darley and trained by Eoin Harty, Out of Bounds and Gomez won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita the day before the jockey was injured. There may be other 3-year-olds available to Gomez upon his return, but this is the one who puts the eye on the prize.

Albarado needed two months following his heel surgery before he went back to riding. Gomez has a target of of about six weeks, but don’t put it past him. Remember, this is the guy who rode Blame to a narrow victory over Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs just two days after going down hard on the Kentucky turf. He pretty much won the race with the full use of only one arm.

“I would love to win a Kentucky Derby for Garrett,” said Tony Matos, Gomez’s agent. “The target is for him to return in plenty of time to ride the colt in the San Felipe.”

Harty confirmed that the San Felipe, on March 10, will be the next start for Out of Bounds.

“All’s well,” Harty said. “He had a good work the other day. As far as Garrett’s concerned the mount is his, but Garrett’s fate is in Garrett’s hands. I’ve got mine full with the horse.”

Agent has Derby history

Among jockey agents, Matos can boast six Kentucky Derby victories spread over a number of riders through the years. His most recent came in 2002 when Victor Espinoza rode War Emblem to victory at Churchill Downs.

In fact, Matos can lay claim to being associated with a seventh Derby winner from a different angle. As the owner of a Southern California farm that serves as a lay-up and training facility, he has had all manner of horses under the care of his crew. One of them, in the late 1980’s, was a mare named Wishing Well.

“She came to us before Sunday Silence was racing,” Matos recalled of Wishing Well’s famous son. “I did not own her, but I was involved in a foal-sharing arrangement with the man who did. When Sunday Silence came along to win the Derby and then later the Breeders’ Cup Classic, her foals became a lot more valuable. In that sense his Derby was the most important to me.”

When a rider like Gomez goes down the ripples effect many people. The agent is high on the list. Matos was asked what he has been doing to fill the time since his champion was injured.

“To tell you the truth not much at all,” Matos said. “I’m getting pretty bored. I go up to see the horses at the farm every couple of days. And I go out to the track, but I stopped counting how many winners Garrett’s lost.”

Good idea, since there have been many, including several stakes.

“I’ve even gone to rehabilitation with him a couple of times,” Matos confessed. “If he’s working that hard to come back, it’s the least I can do.”