04/28/2010 11:00PM

Trouble? Gomez knows the real thing

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Barbara D. Livingston
Garrett Gomez retained the mount on Lookin At Lucky even after trainer Bob Baffert was disappointed with his ride in the Santa Anita Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The field in the Santa Anita Derby hit the far turn, and there came Garrett Gomez and favored Lookin At Lucky creeping up along the fence. Lookin At Lucky was the race favorite, the horse with a target affixed. His run was clean till midway around the turn, where Victor Espinoza on Who's Up dropped over toward the rail. Garrett Gomez found himself in trouble.

Getting stopped while riding the favorite in a major Kentucky Derby prep? That's trouble Gomez can handle. Real trouble is when you have been to jail, seen your world busted open from drink and drugs, felt your life crumbling. Gomez found a way out of that spot: One might say that to see him atop the racing world is to be lookin' at lucky.

Luck has so far worked to undo Gomez and Lookin At Lucky in 2010. In the Rebel Stakes on March 13 at Oaklawn Park, Lookin At Lucky's

3-year-old debut, Gomez got swept and crowded into a tight backstretch spot. Lookin At Lucky stumbled over a rival's heels, but still found a way to win.

After the rough Arkansas run, all trainer Bob Baffert wanted at Santa Anita was a solid, uneventful trip, a stepping-stone to the Kentucky Derby, but as Who's Up came over, Lookin At Lucky checked, lurched, and came close to going down. Once clear and balanced again, he and Gomez came back on for third. But the trainer was angry.

Verbs employed in headlines were "blasted" and "ripped," the adjectives Baffert publicly used to describe Gomez's ride "horrendous" and "ridiculous."

Gomez had plenty of response for Espinoza: He punched him before the riders returned to the jocks' room. But even after the "blasting" and "ripping" Gomez took from Baffert, and even though Gomez still holds himself blameless for Lookin At Lucky's trouble, he kept his peace with the trainer.

"It always bothers you to hear that, but it's the way you respond to what happens that counts," Gomez said during a break in his Keeneland race day last week. "I responded pretty quickly to the one guy who got me, and I took most of my anger out on him. As far as what Bob said, everybody has the right to their opinion, and we worked out whatever it was that needed to be worked out."

Gomez missed the entire 2003 season, a year spent rehabbing and pulling the scraps of his life back together. In pre-layoff days, he might not have been so judicious in his response.

"When I was younger I didn't handle stuff like that very well at all," said Gomez. "I'm the kind of guy that wants to fight, to kind of throw the truth out there and fight until I'm right. Now, since I came back in late 2004, I think differently. My life is run differently. I do a lot of things differently than I used to do."

Gomez is talking about process, but results since he has been clean and sober are different, too: More than $18 million in purse earnings every year since 2006; Eclipse Awards as the nation's top rider in 2007 and 2008; 28 Grade 1 wins since his comeback; four victories in the 2008 Breeders' Cup. Missing from the resume? A Kentucky Derby.

Gomez, 38, got two Derby mounts in his pre-layoff days, finishing seventh in 1994 on Southern Rhythm, and 13th in 1995 aboard Dazzling Falls. He has ridden the race annually the last four years, with finishes of 17th on Bob and John in 2006, eighth on Any Given Saturday in 2007, and 13th on Court Vision in 2008. Finally, last year, Gomez landed a live horse, nabbing a second for Baffert on Pioneerof the Nile.

Gomez does not hesitate when asked if the Derby is a race he feels he needs to win. "I do. It's been a lifelong goal."

Gomez's best chance could come Saturday. Lookin At Lucky was 2-year-old champion in 2009, and unlike Pioneerof the Nile, who made his dirt debut in the Derby, Lucky passed the dirt test when he won the Rebel. And was there ever much doubt Gomez would retain the mount at Churchill, despite Lookin At Lucky's troubled 2010?

The Santa Anita Derby was contested April 3. By April 5, Baffert had quashed any murmuring about Lookin At Lucky having a new Derby rider. To whom would he have turned? Gomez is the guy who replaces other jocks in important races, not the guy who gets taken off.

"I was never really upset with Garrett, I was just disappointed with the way he rode him," Baffert said this week at Churchill.

"He came back to the barn, I talked to him," said Baffert. "If he would have come back to the barn and said . . . 'I rode him the right way,' or whatever, then I don't know what I would have done."

Still, Gomez bristles at the idea he made mistakes in the Santa Anita Derby. "I'm not the one who pushed me into the fence. Unless I take out half the field into the first turn, I'm stuck inside. If anyone can run that film back and tell me where I could get outside, I'd like to see it. Myself, I thought I rode a good race - two more jumps, and I'm out. Something like that isn't supposed to happen."

Baffert, however, believes Gomez should have urged Lookin At Lucky into the race shortly after the break, thus avoiding the pinch that squeezed Gomez back and toward the fence in the first furlong.

"They came over and put the squeeze on him immediately, and that's where he should've gotten more aggressive and got in there and been laying on Candy," said Baffert, referring to wire-to-wire winner Sidney's Candy. "Garrett's got his own style. He wants to ride them like turf horses. But my horses are fast. I just told him, 'You can't ride him like that. Not to your style. You have to ride him to the horse's style.' "

Funny thing is, Gomez-style might fit this Derby better than Baffert-style. Speed horses pack the field, and in Lookin At Lucky's final Derby breeze Monday, his work-mate broke off some 10 lengths in front of him, as though Baffert wanted practice at coming from far back.

Still, when he gives his jock a leg up, Baffert is trusting Gomez to figure it out. It's what the man does.

"There's all kinds of things that go on in a race that are not by design," Gomez said. "I see myself as a feel rider. I look at the Form, I strategize to a certain extent. The race might be run just the way you put it out on paper. The problem is, you're on an animal, and maybe he feels different than he did last time. He may feel better or he may feel worse, more energized today than he was the last time, and you have to play all that by ear. One horse I might ride, he might relax the first three jumps away from there, but the next time, it might take me a sixteenth of a mile before I can get him to relax. If he won't relax at first, that means I have to wait longer to do something with him, because if I let him do too much early, he's going to flatten out. It's just a game where you have to watch and feel what's going on with the animal. Like I said - a feel game.

"I have something I tell myself before every race: 'Don't be afraid to lose,' " Gomez continued. "What I mean by that is, don't get impatient and make wrong decisions. Let the race develop, let it happen and capitalize on people's mistakes."

For years, it was Gomez making mistakes. He came up in the Southwest; his father, Louie, a jockey in New Mexico and Arizona. Gomez quit school at 16, rode his first race at Santa Fe Downs in 1988. Gomez was gifted, confident, and aggressive out on the track, and he moved up fast. What brought down Gomez in his late 20s was Gomez.

He was wired for addiction: He said an aunt, an uncle, and a grandfather all were hard-core alcoholics. Perspective? Gomez knew little more than racetrack life.

"You get caught up in the rush of the world, growing up in this business," he said.

The decline began with drinking, moved on to drugs.

"I tried to sit and decide one day whether I was an alcoholic or an addict," he said. "I used cocaine, speed, meth, smoked a little weed. I became a chemist, where if I felt too high, I'd drink, and if I felt too drunk, then I'd use. I found a way to keep myself feeling normal - but normal was messed up. What's amazing is how clear it is. For years I drank and would go out at night, and then show up and do my job. But I got to a point where I got so messed up I couldn't show up any more."

That was eight years ago. Gomez's marriage cracked up (he has two children from that relationship, two more with his second wife, Pam), and for the first time since childhood, he left the track.

"Once I went through this period when I was rehabbed, and I came back to riding in 2004, I just kept doing what people told me to do," Gomez said. "Be happy with my life, go to meetings, talk with this person, share with that person, open your life up, let people help you. And since I've done that, my life has continually gotten better. Not just in the working world, but my home life, too. As long as I'm making people happy, for some reason, those people are making me happy. My whole life gives a positive aura."

Gomez said "every now and then" he attends the meetings that were a regular part of his life during rehab, but Gomez would prefer to live outside the world of incessant recovery.

"What I've seen is that if you're doing that and not doing anything else, you're hiding from the world," he said. "I have a life. I have more to do than meetings. I don't mean that in a negative way at all. I surround myself with people who will pull the covers off my eyes. I'm around people who go to meetings. I've got friends who've came out, gone back in again. It's not like I can't ever end up where I came from again if I don't watch what I do and keep cleaning house and watch my behavior."

Gomez's steely focus makes the chaos of his former life seem distant.

"I watch people drink all the time - you get used to watching people drink," he said.

The times he thinks himself back into the feeling of doing drugs, Gomez is left cold.

"It gives me the chills, because it's just like I can't imagine my body feeling that way now. Even when I get hurt and go to the hospital and have to get medications, I don't know if my body can handle it."

And yet this business of riding racehorses may dovetail with that same impulse Gomez had to leave the humdrum world behind.

"The highest rush I ever had in my life was when I rode my first race," Gomez said. "I've never had that rush again, and that's one of those things - you're always looking for that next rush."

Gomez has steered himself clear of trouble. If he can do the same with Lookin At Lucky on Saturday, there may be no purer high than riding the winner of the Kentucky Derby.