There's no such thing as an Eclipse Award for the nation's outstanding jockey agent, but if there were it likely would have gone to Jim Pegram in 2005. He took Garrett Gomez, a mid-level rider before he spent two years away from the game while dealing with his drug problems, and helped turn him into a star. What did Pegram get for his efforts? The boot.
It's hard to feel sorry for jockey agents, who don't risk their necks riding, don't have to pay the vet and feed bills, can be some of the slipperiest guys on the racetrack and make gobs of money. But no one deserves what happened to Pegram.
There was a time when Gomez was a mess, a guy with a serious drug problem who had done time in prison. To his credit, he put his life back together and appeared to be a changed man when he re-emerged in May, 2004 and hired Pegram to be his agent. Still, Pegram had a hard sell on his hands: his jockey had been away for two years and hadn't exactly burned up the racetrack before he disappeared.
Over the next 21 months, Gomez enjoyed a remarkable resurgence. With $14.2 million in earnings last year, he was the fifth-leading rider in the country in terms of money won and capped off his remarkable season with two Breeders' Cup wins. His previous career best in money won was just $9 million, which he earned in 1999. In 2002, his last full year before going into rehab, his mounts earned just $4.5 million.
But Pegram was willing to take a chance on him.
"I always knew the talent was there and I knew he had a chance to be a top rider," he said. "I was just hoping to get him going. What ended up happening was beyond my wildest dreams."
There was at least one bump in the road, post-rehab. In September, 2004, largely due to a mixup, Gomez ran afoul of one of his parole officers and was briefly back in jail. Who did he call? Pegram. The agent straightened out the mess, which was nothing but a misunderstanding, and got Gomez out of jail.
Obviously, much of the credit for the turnaround must go to Gomez himself. He's the one who straightened out his own life and he's the one who has the skill and poise that led to so many trips to the winner's circle. But there's no way he could have been so successful without the help of a good agent who also excelled at his job.
"I'm very proud of the job I did," Pegram said. "I've got a lot of confidence when it comes to what I do. I relate well to people and that's how I handle things. Garrett let me do what it took."
So what happened? Pegram isn't sure.
"I had no idea he was unhappy," Pegram said. "He started to cop an attitude the last couple of weeks. We had always been rolling, but went into a little mini-slump, something like 6-for-70. It wasn't like we hit a brick wall. There was a track bias out here and that hurt him because he likes to come from out of it. For 14 months, he never questioned one thing. He'd just go out there and ride his butt off and let me handle the business end of things. But once we hit a little bump in the road, which was all it was, something happened. I saw that he was a little sour but I had no idea he was so unhappy. I had no idea I was in jeopardy of getting fired."
Gomez's side of the story?
"I've been very fortunate in the past year, but I really felt like I needed an agent who would have the same kind of goals I have – to maintain my career and start to take it to the next level," Gomez told the Blood-Horse, explaining why he fired Pegram.
Gomez wound up hiring agent Ron Anderson, who became available when Jerry Bailey retired.
As for Pegram, he's now working for Kent Desormeaux, who won the 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard Real Quiet for Pegram's brother, owner Mike Pegram. Desormeaux has been one of the great disappointments in racing over the last several years. He is as talented as any jockey in racing, but is no longer considered among the elite riders in the country. He doesn't seem to have a great work ethic and many say he rubs people the wrong way. Maybe Pegram can do for him what he did for Gomez–revive his career.
As for Gomez, he hired a good agent, shows no signs of relapsing into his old bad habits and is sure to be a major star for years to come. He's got a lot of attributes. Apparently, loyalty isn't one of them.