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Gomez is back in near-record time

If they had a football team for jockeys, Garrett Gomez would play middle linebacker.

Wednesday at Santa Anita, showing that tough guys can come in small packages, the 114-pound battler tackled a task in a style, and in a circumstance, that would have made Dick Butkus proud.

In so doing, he made the ’08 finale at the Great Race Place a dramatic one.

Gomez entered the day’s racing with a chance to break Jerry Bailey’s all-time money-winning record for a season. Bailey, now retired, rode horses in 2003 that collected purses for his owners totaling $23,354,960. Gomez started Wednesday $79,454 shy of that.

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Wednesday’s program did not offer large purses, normal for midweek racing these days. Gomez had four mounts and the biggest purse was the $70,000 Kalookan Queen Handicap.

The day before, Ron Anderson, Gomez’s agent and, coincidentally, Bailey’s agent in his ’03 record year, assessed the chances.

“Pretty slim,” Anderson said.

That was not just based on mathematics. Gomez was riding hurt. So hurt, as a matter of fact, that four days ago he was flat on his back on a board, being carried from the track, unable to use or feel his legs.

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Saturday, in the Eddie Logan Stakes, he had a horse named Back At You in the lead on the turn for home when the 2-year-old colt, spooked by a shadow on the track, veered into the rail and sent Gomez flying. Racing people see lots of accidents, and this one was well past routine.

“The whole grandstand just stopped when it happened,” said trainer Doug O’Neill.

In the paddock Wednesday, the accident remained the talk of the place.

“The guy is one tough little warrior,” said one fan, watching in amazement as Gomez saddled up.

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“When I hit,” Gomez recalled Wednesday, “I came down on both my heels. When I was on the board, being carried off, I couldn’t feel my legs, or move them. That was scary.”

He had huge cuts on his left hand and said that the hand was swollen more than an inch above the knuckles after the accident.

“Thought it was broken for sure,” he said.

He also lost three front teeth and bruised his left knee badly.

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Anderson said, “When it happened, somebody offered me binoculars to take a look. I said no thanks. I couldn’t look. Then I called an official who was down right near there and he said he couldn’t tell me whether or not he was OK because his answer would be heard over his radio. Then, I really got worried.”

All thoughts of Bailey’s record were gone at that point, and even though the feeling gradually came back to Gomez’s legs and the doctors eventually allowed him to go home, he spent much of Sunday in the dentist chair, rather than in a racing saddle.

On that Sunday at Santa Anita, three of the seven horses he was scheduled to ride won. Their purse total was $141,000.

Late Saturday, when Gomez was finally allowed to be driven home from the hospital by his wife, Pam, he told Anderson, as he was getting into the car, to stick around, that he thought he might miss only a couple of days.

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“I thought he was nuts,” Anderson said.

“I was just trying to make my agent feel good,” Gomez said.

Monday, Gomez felt better. Anderson delivered the news to the media.

“He rides,” he said.

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Gomez won twice, meaning that, after Tuesday’s day off, he still had a shot, although an unlikely one, at Bailey’s record on the last day of the year.

Just to be riding was unbelievable. Then, among fans and racing people, the disbelief grew as Wednesday unfolded.

In his first ride, the third race, Gomez got Warren’s Appeal a neck ahead in the stretch run, had his mount back off to second place with less than 100 yards to go, and then, stunningly, dig in and win. That was worth $18,000, or 60% of the purse, and Gomez was within $61,454 of Bailey.

In the fifth race, aboard a medium-odds horse named Twin Turbo, Gomez stayed way off the pace, swung wide in the stretch and won on the last jump.

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That brought $7,800 and made the magic number $53,654.

In the sixth, aboard an Irish horse named Kyniska, Gomez got a length ahead in the middle of the charging pack and stayed in front by a head for $33,600 more. Bailey was now $20,054 away.

Gomez had one more shot, the $70,000 Kalookan. And he had to win. Sixty percent was worth $42,000, but second (20%) would bring only $14,000.

Gomez rode a 4-1 morning-line filly named Baroness Thatcher, who struggled in the backstretch, changed leads too often and surprised even Gomez by getting it together for a late run. But the third place was worth only $9,072.

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Gomez -- after a long year of thousands of mounts and hundreds of thousands of miles traveled -- had fallen five lengths and $10,982 short of the record.

Gomez took it well. He hopped off Baroness Thatcher, posed for a contrived photo tearing up a congratulations sign, then met the media with a sense of humor.

“Oh, well,” he said.

And later, hearing the numbers and how close it had been, he laughed and said, “I want a recount.”

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There was one race still to go on Santa Anita’s program, but Gomez didn’t have a ride. Anderson and others quickly did the math while pondering if one of the other jockeys might step aside for Gomez and one last chance. Among those mentioned was Alex Solis, eventual Hall of Famer, who would have a feel for this sort of history.

But even a first place in the final race would bring only $10,800, or $182 short, so Solis wasn’t asked -- interestingly, he won the race -- and Gomez said he wouldn’t have been all that comfortable doing that, anyway.

“What was meant to be was meant to be,” he said, setting his jaw.

He did have a nice consolation prize, the knowledge that his personal take for 2008, usually 10% for wins and 5% for second or third, would be around $2 million.

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That’s quite a year for any middle linebacker.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com


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