03/18/2011 12:27PM

Woolf Award a milestone for Gomez on a personal level

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Barbara D. Livingston
The pinnacle of Garrett Gomez's 2010 was riding Blame to victory over Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

ARCADIA, Calif. – There will not be any grand prepared speech when jockey Garrett Gomez accepts the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award at Santa Anita on Sunday. He tried that once to no avail.

“I don’t write anything down, that’s not the person I am,” he said in the jockeys’ room on Thursday afternoon. “The first year I won the Eclipse Award, I was thinking of who I should thank. I started talking and I halfway froze. I couldn’t think of anything.

“I pretty much wing everything.”

Well, not everything. Gomez, and his agent, Ron Anderson, have positioned the 39-year-old jockey into one of the most sought-after riders in the nation in the last six years. Since 2005, Gomez has been among the nation’s leading riders – from 2006 to 2009, he won the national earnings title – and he won Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding rider in 2007 and 2008.

Behind the scenes, Gomez’s life in recent years has changed as well. The personal problems with substance abuse that left him out of racing from December 2002 to September 2004 are long behind him, replaced by a family man, albeit one who spends considerable time on the road, at the nation’s major meetings. The success of the recent years is a turnaround from a 40-day jail term in 2003 for possession of narcotics that left him estranged from his wife and their two small children.

With those difficulties behind him, Gomez covets the recognition of receiving the Woolf Award. The award recognizes personal character and a rider’s success on the track. There was a time when Gomez would not have been a candidate for such an honor.

“That’s probably why I wasn’t nominated for five years,” he said. “I don’t think it was my personality in the jockeys’ room. It was my character outside the jockeys’ room. I think I’ve been a good role model in the jockeys’ room, but outside the jockeys’ room is where I veered off the track.

“After 2003, my whole life has been turned around. I try to do the right thing. I’ve tried to be more of a loving, caring human being.”

Gomez joins a group of Woolf Award winners that reads like a Who’s Who of American riders, from Bill Shoemaker, John Longden and Eddie Arcaro in the 1950s to retired legends with more recent careers such as Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Pat Day, Gary Stevens, and Jerry Bailey. Last year’s winner was Midwest star Calvin Borel.

“To be in the same company with these guys, it’s something that most of us shoot for,” Gomez said. “It’s not something voted on by the press. It’s voted on by your peers and a special award to be nominated for.”

Gomez, whose career began in New Mexico in 1988 and includes 3,457 wins through Thursday, was nominated for the 2010 Eclipse Award, which was won by Ramon Dominguez. Gomez, however, won the nation’s biggest race, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last November aboard Blame.

The days leading to that win showed Gomez’s toughness. Two days before the BC Classic, he was involved in a spill at Churchill Downs when his mount broke down. Fighting shoulder pain, Gomez rode the Breeders’ Cup races, and guided Blame to a head victory over the previously unbeaten Zenyatta.

In some ways, Gomez was the bad guy that hour, the man who rode the horse who beat the popular mare. The career milestone for Gomez of winning the BC Classic for the first time was somewhat lost in the defeat of Zenyatta.

“I would like to have seen the horse get a little more attention that day,” he said of Blame. “He did something that had never been done. He was the best horse. I felt if we had gone around again, she wouldn’t have caught him. It got close and she was coming.”

The next day was not fun. Gomez fought considerable pain.

“I couldn’t move my shoulder the next day,” he said. “It got worse when I got home from Kentucky. Ron told me to get an MRI, and I said, I’ll go do it if it doesn’t feel better.

“Sometimes the pain comes and goes, but you’re not 16 anymore. You don’t bounce back like you did. After four days it was a lot worse. I went to two doctors and one said I had a little crack in my shoulder. Another said I had a hairline crack where the arm meets the shoulder. A week and a half went by. I started riding on Thanksgiving weekend and I’ve been going since.”

Through Thursday, Gomez was tied for fifth in the standings at Santa Anita with 32 wins, seven of which were stakes. In coming weeks, he will travel on weekends. Saturday, he was booked to ride Sway Away in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, then planned to return to Santa Anita to ride on Sunday. On March 26, he rides Wilkinson in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. On April 3, he’s off to Gulfstream Park to ride To Honor and Serve in the Florida Derby.

Gomez will ride at Keeneland in April, all the while hoping to secure the mount that will give him his first Kentucky Derby win.

“The mounts are starting to come open,” he said. “I’m glad people are thinking of us.”

A few years ago, people were not sure what to think of Gomez, wondering if personal problems would end his career for good. When he accepts the Woolf Award on Sunday, he will put those days farther behind him.