07/17/2005 11:00PM

Jockey race to look little like last year's

Hollywood champ Garrett Gomez is expected to be among the leading riders at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. - When the Del Mar meet opened one year ago, jockey Garrett Gomez was nearing the end of a self-imposed exile from the sport that had lasted nearly two years. It was not until the end of the meeting that Gomez even began to come around to the track and reacquaint himself with horsemen in preparation for his return to riding at Fairplex Park.

Gomez has come back better than ever. At the Hollywood Park meeting that ended Sunday, Gomez was the meet's leading rider. When Del Mar opens on Wednesday, Gomez will be a leading candidate to be this track's winningest rider, too, a remarkable position considering that he has not even ridden here since the summer of 2002, shortly before he sought help to deal with personal problems that included a dependency on drugs.

"I'm ecstatic with how things are going," Gomez said as Hollywood Park's meet neared its completion. "I've always known I've had the ability and the talent. I just had to put my mind to it, rely on a power greater than me, and realize I could put my hand out and ask for help. I always felt that was a downfall. Now, I'm not afraid to ask for help. Before, I couldn't ask for help, because I thought I knew everything."

Gomez said he is eager to ride again at Del Mar, where he won the Pacific Classic in 2000 and 2001 with Skimming.

"I always look forward to Del Mar," he said. "You do so much more work than the rest of the year, but it doesn't seem like it. You're going 24-7, six days a week. It's like a working vacation. Stake-wise, I've always done pretty well there. Hopefully this year it will all come together."

A year ago, Gomez said he "kind of felt out of place."

"The circumstances were not what I was used to," he said. "I had to do what I was told. I could only go to the barns or to the Winners Foundation, nothing else. But when I got ready to ride again, everybody seemed glad to see me."

Now, Gomez said, "I'm enjoying my job, and I'm enjoying my life, period.

"I'm spending time with my family," he said. "I keep my priorities straight. It's all falling into place."

Gomez's return is one of several factors that should mark a sea change in the jockey standings at the seaside track. The three hottest riders at Hollywood Park - Gomez, Alex Solis, and Patrick Valenzuela - all missed most or all of last summer's meet at Del Mar. In their absence, Corey Nakatani defeated Tyler Baze, 54-52.

Solis, who finished second to Gomez at the recently concluded Hollywood Park meeting, fractured a vertebra in his back the third day of the season last year at Del Mar when his horse clipped heels and fell.

"At least I didn't blank last year," he said ruefully.

Valenzuela - who missed much of this summer's Hollywood Park meeting with a back injury but won races in bunches both before and after the mishap - was on suspension and missed the entire season last year at Del Mar. In 2003, though, Valenzuela was Del Mar's leading rider, defeating the now-retired Julie Krone, 52-49, including a win in a celebrated match race. Valenzuela also was the leading rider at Del Mar in 2002, and in three prior years.

"I can't wait," Valenzuela said. "I love Del Mar. I seem to do very well there. The people in San Diego love me, and I love them."

Considering he missed last year, does Valenzuela feel like he's the defending champ?

"I feel like I need to be the champ there this year," he said.

In addition, Mike Smith, who has ridden in Kentucky since Santa Anita's meeting ended in April, has returned to Del Mar for the summer. When Smith left, he was merely a Hall of Famer. Now, he's also a Kentucky Derby winner. Which appellation does he prefer?

"The whole thing, all in one sentence," Smith said, laughing.

Smith finished 10th in the standings at Del Mar last summer with just 12 wins, but had only 127 mounts, an average of only three per day and about half the number that Baze and Victor Espinoza accepted. Smith is now represented by agent Brad Pegram, who joined forces with Smith after last year's meet ended.

For most of his career, Smith was based on the East Coast, where he rode regularly at Saratoga. Most of the top riders in Kentucky, including Smith's close friend Gary Stevens, will be based in Saratoga this summer. But Smith said "the game plan all along" was to return to Del Mar this summer.

"It's a little circuit we want to follow - Santa Anita, Churchill, then Del Mar," Smith said. "I love the atmosphere at Del Mar. It's just a neat place. I want to ride some awesome 2-year-olds that will carry me through the rest of the year."