11/06/2007 1:00AM

With record in reach, Gomez stands tall

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Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Garrett Gomez has won 69 stakes this year, including the BC Sprint aboard Midnight Lute.
INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Last January, Garrett Gomez's shoulders seemed to sag a bit when Edgar Prado's name was announced at the Eclipse Awards as the outstanding jockey of 2006. Gomez had the sort of season that would have merited such an award, and he was clearly disappointed when he didn't get it.

This January, it would be wise for Gomez to have a short speech ready. The 2007 season has been a career-defining year for Gomez, who is almost certain to break the record for most stakes wins in a year. Through Sunday, Gomez had won 69 stakes this year, one shy of Jerry Bailey's single-season record of 70 set in 2003.

Last month, Gomez won two Breeders' Cup races at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27 - the Sprint with Midnight Lute, and the Juvenile Fillies with Indian Blessing. He was honored with the Shoemaker Award as the outstanding rider of the two-day Breeders' Cup meeting.

Upon returning to Southern California in late October, Gomez won 10 races from 27 mounts in the final six days of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting.

Last year, Gomez, 35, had his first $20 million season, finishing the year with earnings of $20.1 million. The figure is no longer a personal record. Through Sunday, Gomez's mounts had earned $20,265,691 this year.

He is not done. There are several Grade 1 stakes to ride at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita before Dec. 31, and a possible road trip to Aqueduct later this month to ride Midnight Lute in the Cigar Mile.

"I've had a good year like last year," he said. "To reflect, it was beyond my expectations, and so is this year."

Chart: (PDF)

No other rider in the nation has had his kind of season. Robby Albarado, who has had an outstanding year with victories on Curlin in the Preakness and Breeders' Cup Classic, is second in the nation in money earned with more than $17.5 million, trailing Gomez by almost $3 million.

Despite the success, Gomez refuses to dwell on the Eclipse Award, knowing that he is at the mercy of voters.

"It is out of my hands," Gomez said. "It doesn't have anything to do with what I think or say."

Three years ago, this sort of success seemed impossible. Gomez was trying to re-establish his career after the darkest period of his life. Battling substance abuse and alcoholism, he missed all of 2003 and rode just 36 winners in 2004.

While he was out of racing, he spent time in jail on charges of possession of narcotics and was estranged from his wife, Pam. Helped by family, friends, and counselors, Gomez regained balance in his life. By the summer of 2005, he had returned to living with his family in California, resumed riding, and was on his way to winning the riding title at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting. At the time, he described his comeback as "a big 180."

Those days are not far from his mind.

"It keeps me grounded and it reminds me of what I have to do to keep myself right mentally and not forget I'm an addict and an alcoholic," he said. "On my everyday thought process, I've moved away from it. My focus is riding and on my family."

The comeback has led to opportunities around the country. In the spring of 2006, trainer Todd Pletcher invited Gomez to relocate to the East Coast as a replacement for the then-injured John Velazquez. Velazquez returned in the summer, but Gomez continued to ride for Pletcher.

Earlier this year, Gomez rode at Santa Anita from January through the first of April, and then moved back to the East, riding for Pletcher and other trainers. He plans the same schedule for 2008.

The schedule has its hardships. Gomez estimates he is away from Pam and their children for four months of the year, although the family did spend the summer in New York. The children's school schedule is one reason the entire family has not moved to New York.

"They're all bred in California and it's hard to get them out of here," he said of his family. "This is where they want to go to school."

It helps that his career is soaring. From his start riding in New Mexico in 1988 through 2004, Gomez's mounts earned $62 million. Since the start of 2005, his mounts have earned more than $54.4 million.

Riding top horses throughout the country has put Gomez in a position to break Bailey's record. Gomez was scheduled to have a chance to tie the single-season stakes record aboard Karazi in Wednesday's War Chant Stakes at Hollywood Park. He could break it this weekend.

Gomez is represented by jockey agent Ron Anderson, who booked mounts for Bailey during his record-breaking season. Gomez remembers Anderson talking about the single-season record earlier this year, though he admits to not paying much attention at the time.

"I let it go through one ear and out the other," Gomez said. "It was so far in advance."

That is no longer the case. The record is almost his, the latest milestone that is redefining a career.