01/02/2013 5:23PM

Jay Hovdey: Gomez, Baze put injuries behind them

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey Garrett Gomez finished 12th in the national purse standings in 2012.

The average 41-year-old husband and father of two young children will have stored on his iPhone a photo collection of the kids at play and the family on holiday, especially around this time of year.

Garrett Gomez, being anything but average, scanned past such benign images and settled on a picture that at first glance appeared to be the schematic design for a 21st century waffle iron, or maybe the latest installation on exhibit in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art.

“There’s a plate with eight screws in it, and I’ve got two screws in the joint,” Gomez explained, after first identifying the image as an X-ray of his repaired left heel.

He broke that left heel on Jan. 8, 2012, when he was tossed off a horse named Silver Summation while heading from the Santa Anita paddock to the track. Over the ensuing months, fraught with surgery, recovery, and rehabilitation, he became an expert on a part of his anatomy that to that point had escaped serious injury.

“When you break your heel, it’s like an eggshell,” he continued. “It doesn’t break like a larger bone. It cracks into pieces. There was dust in there – bone dust – and a bunch of small pieces the doctors didn’t see on the X-rays.”

It was New Year’s Day, and Gomez was sitting at his cubicle in the Santa Anita jocks’ room, showered and dressed to join his family for a birthday dinner. His birthday, in fact, which was announced over the track’s loudspeaker system after he won a race early on the card.

“That’s okay,” Gomez said. “I’m proud to be 41.”

He scanned to another photo, this one of a swollen, traumatized human foot with an incongruous, crescent-shaped glyph drawn above what appeared to a deep, L-shaped surgical wound.

“This is my foot when they took the cast off,” Gomez said. “Me and my wife were trying to figure out what that purple mark was. Turns out it marked where it’s supposed to be my ankle.”

Gomez slipped off his black loafer and peeled down his sock. The surgical wound had resolved itself into a delicate L-shaped scar on pale but otherwise healthy skin on the outside of the foot just below the ankle.

“If you were to touch it, you can’t feel the plate or the screws,” Gomez said. He was right.

“This is the first time I’ve had metal in my body,” he added. “Sometimes when I’m in bed, I’ll feel a kind of tingling in the heel. I guess that’s the nerves still healing. In warm weather, I hardly ever notice it. It’s only when rain is coming I really notice it. But to tell you the truth, it seems like it happened a long time ago.”

In his haste to make it back in time to find a live Kentucky Derby mount last spring, Gomez pushed his recovery too hard and too fast. It cost him, but that’s an old story, told by every rider who listens carefully to doctor’s orders and then promptly ignores them. With what amounted to half a year of genuine good health, Gomez still finished 12th in the national purse standings.

Sometimes jockeys have a right to be skeptical when given medical advice. Tyler Baze was told he’d be able to ride again if he gave the facial fractures he sustained at the Del Mar starting gate in 2010 enough time to heal. He did – three surgeries worth – but in the healing the muscles surrounding his right eye were compromised to such an extent that he saw double. For a jockey, this is a problem.

“I still can’t open that eye as far as the other,” Baze said as he and his fellow riders filed into the room after the last race of the day. Baze hung up his sand-splattered helmet and tossed into it a set of unusual looking goggles.

“Prescription,” he said. “I’ve got three pair. The lenses have a prism that lines up the vision in the eyes. Ever since I got them, I’ve been able to see again.”

For Gomez and Baze, their return from racing injuries is to be admired and celebrated by their many fans, but no more or less than any of the scores of other jockeys who suffer comparable damage in any given year. However, both Gomez and Baze also are recovering from the self-inflicted damage of substance abuse. For Baze it was alcohol, exacerbated by his career-threatening vision trouble. For Gomez, it was just about anything he could lay his hands on as detailed in his forthright autobiography, “The Garrett Gomez Story,” published last fall.

“Sometimes I can’t believe how much stronger I feel now that I’m not putting that crap in my body anymore,” Baze said.

At a glance, Baze does look very different, and it has nothing to do with his eyes. Now 30, his face has become lean to go along with a torso decorated with defined muscles – just like Gomez. This is primarily because, in addition to avoiding alcohol Baze says he no longer lives the life of a bulemic, bingeing and heaving as a method of contolling his weight.

“That’s not about weight control,” Baze said. “It’s a mental illness, and it messes with your mind in terrible ways.”

Gomez emerged from his downward spiral in fall 2004. His return to grace has been nothing less than inspiring, with four national championships and two Eclipse Awards. Whether or not Baze, who won an Eclipse Award as an apprentice, can be similarly resurrected remains to be seen. Gomez is among those cheering hard for him.

“People need to realize it can happen to anybody,” Gomez said. “If it’s not with drugs or alcohol, it can be something else compulsive. You can work your way back.”

Baze, who has gone through a strict rehab program, so far has been willing to do the work. He won 10 races with limited opportunities during the Santa Anita fall meet and another 14 during the short Hollywood winter stand. On New Year’s Day, he rode eight of the nine races on the card.

“I’ve got a lot of incentive to make it,” Baze said. “It’s like I got my life back.”