12/16/2016 3:00PM

Hovdey: When ascendant, few stars burned brighter than Gomez


If tragedies are meant to be clustered in threes, then Thoroughbred racing has paid its dues in full for the rest of 2016.

In another life, Steve Sexton was a colleague at Daily Racing Form. His name on a teletyped message or an inter-office bundle meant you were getting the straight scoop, and that the job – any job – was getting done with a discipline of purpose and respect for the work that co-workers crave in a boss on the rise.

Sexton was 57 when a virulent form of brain cancer took him from his friends and loving family at home in Texas last week.

When I last spoke with Steve he had helped create the United States Grand Prix, at a spanking new mega-course in Austin, Texas. This, to a fellow traveler in the Formula 1 car racing world, is what God would have done on the seventh day if he hadn’t taken a break. In between, Sexton lent his good nature and organizational skills to a number of Thoroughbred racetracks. Lucky them.

Even as president of Churchill Downs Inc., Sexton was a classic behind-the-scenes guy, preferring to pass around the credit and the praise. Walter Swinburn never had that option. From his first swings in the saddle he was the Golden Child, the Choirboy, already mounted with such outsized talents as All Along and Shergar by the time he was 22.

The fishbowl of Swinburn’s life often was polluted by injury, alcohol, and the ravages of weight control. And still he rode like a dream, until there was no more to give, and retired to life as a trainer.

Swinburn’s death this week at 55 was mourned by his British racing family as the loss of a son in a battle he had been losing for years. To their credit, they honored him in life as well, but his passing opened floodgates of praise, like this from veteran journalist Chris McGrath in the Thoroughbred Daily News:

“However incongruous with his hidden torments, then, the seraphic exterior was perfectly consistent with vitals seated far deeper than his stomach or liver. There was a nearly ethereal continuum between the core of his being and that of the horse he governed so lightly.”

There was no hiding the torments that finally ended the life of Garrett Keith Gomez. He was a drug and alcohol addict, a poster boy for dependency and its evil cousin, self destruction.

He was also an athlete of grace and style and competitive fury, talented beyond words, who emerged from the depths of his addictions to write a peerless chapter as a professional jockey.

Gomez already was a known commodity as a riding star and cocaine connoisseur when he found rock bottom in 2003. His career and marriage were in shambles. He spent most of the year either on the run, in jail, or in court-ordered drug rehabilitation. He needed to heal from the inside out, and he did, or at least well enough to resume his riding career in September of 2004.

There ensued seven miracle years. Between 2005 and the end of 2011 the horses ridden by Gomez earned more than $138 million. He was national champion four times, Eclipse Award winner twice, and won an incredible 13 Breeders’ Cup events. He rode champions Rags to Riches, Lookin At Lucky, Beholder, Indian Blessing, Wait a While, and Blame.

Two days before Gomez rode Blame to a narrow victory over Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, the jockey suffered a broken right arm and scapula in a fall on the Churchill Downs turf. He later wryly noted that it was a good thing he didn’t need to switch the whip to get the job done, because he couldn’t move his arm.

At the beginning of 2012, Gomez fractured his heel in a freak fall on the way to the track at Santa Anita. He spent part of his physical rehabilitation collaborating on his biography with historian Rudy Alvarado. They called it “The Garrett Gomez Story: a Jockey’s Journey Through Addiction & Salvation.”

The book offered a frank telling of his addictions and their consequences, as well as the rider’s gratitude that there was still a sport and a family that would offer him another chance. The story also was fraught with warnings, none more dire than the one contained in the last line of the book:

“… but he was the only one that could’ve ever given those things to himself – and in the end, the only one that can take those things away.”

Gomez rode for the last time in late 2013. The news of his death at age 44, apparently from a drug overdose, was the first time he had made any kind of headlines since his name appeared on the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot along with fellow jockeys Ramon Dominguez, Victor Espinoza, and Craig Perret.

This reporter has missed dealing with the public version of Garrett Gomez these past few years. He was funny, friendly, and articulate regarding his craft. and when he was at his healthiest, the public and the private man were pretty closely aligned. He would have preferred a life less complicated, I’m sure. But at least he left an image of the athlete at full throttle, and a warning that glory is fleeting, and never the point.