Gomez tells story of abuse and addiction

Garrett Gomez guides Spring Awakening first under the wire in the 2007 Moccasin. Benoit Photo

"I'd try to get an 8-ball of cocaine by telling whoever it was that I was Garrett Gomez, that I was a jockey and that someday I was going to get out of there and get back to riding. … Sometimes my story worked, but most of the time people just looked at me … like they wanted to wake me up and say, 'That was before, man, a long time ago. You ain't getting back there and you know it.'" -- Garrett Gomez, "The Garrett Gomez Story"

DUARTE, Calif. -- It has been 15 days since doctors removed stitches from the L-shaped gash in his left foot, more than five weeks since they made that incision to insert the plate and 10 screws holding his broken heel together, and over one month since a horse named Silver Summation flipped backward on a walkway from the paddock, causing the injury before the running of the Jan. 8 Daytona Stakes at Santa Anita Park.

On Feb. 12, Garrett Gomez returned to the racetrack, swinging along on crutches but determined to show his face and indicate he'll be back in the saddle soon. Three times a week in therapy plus exercise at home -- swimming and riding about eight miles per day on a stationary bicycle -- and his heel is coming around. He started putting pressure on it over the weekend, and he's been able to take a few steps without crutches. Today, doctors will scan the area and recommend a date for a return to riding. Gomez hopes it will be early to mid-March, well in time to secure a Kentucky Derby contender.

What does a jockey do besides therapy when a freak accident puts him on the sideline? To quote the man in question, "I'm pretty much going fricking senile, dude." First he watched action movies ("all 250 or so available on Netflix"), then family comedies, then, out of sheer desperation (even though it drives him crazy when he's laid up), the horse racing channels. Now that he's up and about there have been horse shows (his daughter competes) and occasional adventurous trips to the grocery store. But aside from getting well again, Gomez's main focus has been on one other item -- his book.

It comes out May 30, a collaboration between the jockey and author Rudy Alvarado, whose "Untold Story of Joe Hernandez" won the Dr. Tony Ryan Book Award in 2008. Final chapters were approved last week, Gomez sitting on his couch with his bum leg elevated, reading through a description of his life and career. The whole thing went to press Monday and is available for pre-order at www.thegarrettgomezstory.com, which is why interested parties were calling to get the subject's thoughts on the volume and the process.

"Once I get into talking about this, I can ramble," he said. "It comes from the heart. I'm not trying to find a word here or explain a situation there; it's not like you're writing an article about a ride. It's all my life. It happened to me. When I go to talk about it, it's just there."

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"The bottom is when you get tired of digging and you put that shovel down." -- Garrett Gomez, "The Garrett Gomez Story"

You know today's Garrett Gomez as one of thoroughbred racing's top jockeys, a two-time Eclipse Award winner who led the nation in purse earnings four years in a row from 2006 to 2009. You probably saw his upset victory aboard Blame over Zenyatta in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic and his trips to the winner's circle for big races like the Pacific Classic in California and the Travers Stakes in New York. In 2007 he broke Jerry Bailey's record for stakes victories in a season, winning 76 of them. The following year he almost eclipsed Bailey's record for earnings by a jockey in one season ($23,354,960), falling little more than $10,000 short. He won the Breeders' Cup World Championships' Shoemaker Award four times and was given the George Woolf Award, the highest honor bestowed upon a rider by his peers, in 2011. All in all, he has ridden 20,574 starters and made 3,569 trips to the winner's circle with earnings of $188,580,572 (Equibase statistics). In the weeks before his most recent injury he won six stakes races in the first 10 days of the Santa Anita meeting.

People will tell you he's one of the strongest stretch riders in the sport, a fierce competitor who consistently puts his mounts in position to win. Members of the media recognize an articulate and willing ambassador for the game. His good friends describe a committed family man who calls wife Pam "my best friend" and has curtailed his travel schedule to spend more time in California with his young children. Racing fans and pundits know a little of Gomez's personal history -- that he battled addiction and returned triumphant in 2005 after missing 21 months of racing for personal reasons that included substance abuse -- but until now, published accounts of his old issues barely scratched the surface.

The struggles with substance abuse date to his days as a young and naturally talented rider, and although he accomplished great things in the saddle early on, his personal life was a shambles. There was time spent in a psych ward in Little Rock, Ark., when he was 24 years old. There were benders that lasted for days, often weeks. He survived multiple drunken car crashes and was arrested on several occasions. Once, he passed out in the hallway of a casino hotel in Las Vegas with $40,000 worth of chips spilling from his pockets.

There are blocks of time he can't remember, some races -- the 1994 Arkansas Derby, for instance -- he has little recollection of riding, let alone winning. He spent days in jail when he literally fell asleep to dream of sitting at a table loaded with cocaine, picking up a straw and snorting one line after another. But there were also dreams of racing thoroughbreds -- and those dreams, he tells his biographer, "in the end became my salvation."

"You name it, he was doing it," Alvarado said. "Although you can't escape the inclusion of his achievements in racing in a book about him, the story really centers on his alcoholism and drug addiction and his struggles to overcome all that. When we first talked about the book he said 'Look, I want you to do it, but I don't want you to make it a story about how I rode this horse who runs like this or that. I want it to be a story about my addictions; I want to inspire people who have problems with drugs and alcohol who read the book to turn their lives around.' I tried to stay true to that."

This is no feel-good saga, no celebrity biography trumpeting a long list of accomplishments. While Alvarado takes a gut-wrenching, no-holds-barred look at the roller coaster struggles and triumphs that have been Gomez's life, the jockey reveals more than has ever been told. Painful and heartbreaking at first, the book ultimately becomes a celebration of redemption against all odds, a real story of one man's battle to survive his own weakness.

"A lot of what we talked about, the things he shared and was able to tell, he trusted I would be able to write about in a dignified manner," the author said. "You [tell] somebody about your life this way knowing people out there will read and discover certain things they didn't know before."

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"I remember looking into his eyes during one of our arguments when he was using, and I swear I saw the devil himself. His eyes were sunken and they were pitch black. I remember thinking, who is this person? I want my husband back." -- Pam Gomez, "The Garrett Gomez Story"

This story is not an unusual one. Substance abuse is a barely-kept secret of the jockeys' room. Challenges to make weight and a "fast and furious" lifestyle coupled with frequent injuries and the inherent dangers of the job threaten to drag young riders and seasoned veterans down.

Maybe this book will reach out to some of the younger guys and keep them from going through what I went through, if they're willing to read it.

-- Jockey Garrett Gomez

"Among professional athletes," writes Marcus Hersh of the Daily Racing Form, "jockeys may be especially susceptible to addiction."

Retired Hall of Famers like Bailey and Pat Day speak openly about their former struggles with alcoholism. Current riders try to keep their issues private, but news spreads like wildfire at the racetrack. It often isn't long before abuse begins to interfere with their careers as well.

"Most of us start riding races at a very young age and if you're good, you're kind of set on a pedestal," Gomez said. "You get treated differently. You meet these big people who can get you out of trouble if you mess up a little -- they're trying to be helpful, but all the sudden you think you're untouchable, like, 'Ah ha, I can get out of anything.' But let me tell you something -- reality sets in when you're looking at going to prison for narcotics possession and those guys aren't there to help you out anymore."

A long list of jockeys whose talents may be linked to the greatest horses and victories the sport has ever seen may also be linked to news items and articles chronicling substance abuse issues. Writer Pat Forde once called Patrick Valenzuela "the Steve Howe of horse racing." Kent Desormeaux failed a Breathalyzer test at Woodbine and underwent counseling for alcohol abuse. Others escaped detection to fight quieter battles, while Michael Baze and Chris Antley illustrated the harshest realities of this struggle; Baze, 24, passed away last May due to an accidental overdose of cocaine and prescription painkiller oxymorphone, while Antley died in 2000 from a multiple drug overdose at the age of 34.

"I remember being younger; it's hard to reach out to somebody a little older for advice, especially when you're competing against them," Gomez said. "But maybe this book will reach out to some of the younger guys and keep them from going through what I went through, if they're willing to read it."

Gomez, 40, said he hopes young riders recognize his willingness to connect them to help through counseling programs like the Winner's Foundation, a California non-profit that was his lifeline through recovery (he is donating his portion of the proceeds from the book to that cause). Now, with this story, he wants to reach beyond the jockeys' room and into the world.

"My aunt called before she talked to Rudy and asked, 'What do you want me to tell him?'" Gomez said. "I told her, 'The truth.' She said, 'Everything?!' I said, 'Everything.' That's why I'm doing this, to let anyone struggling out there know that people have problems, they mess up, and it's awesome that they get a second chance. I'm trying to make the best out of my second chance, and if this helps one person, it was worth my time."

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.