Lost in the ecstasy of Zenyatta’s heroic effort and the agony of her narrow loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year was the pain in Garrett Gomez’s shoulder.
Gomez won with a great ride aboard a great horse named Blame. In 19 previous tries, no other horse had been able to withstand the closing rush of the greatest equine closer of our time, and when unbeaten Zenyatta came up about three inches short this time, the bigger story was her effort and her close call.
When the reality of what had happened set in on the massive crowd at Churchill Downs, the mood turned immediately dark, just as day had turned quickly to night. The prevailing sounds were moans and sobs.
The next day, the Louisville Courier-Journal captured it perfectly in a huge three-word headline: BLAME THE WINNER.
In Gomez’s biggest moment in racing, he had become a semi-villain. Worse, he had accomplished something incredible under the most difficult of situations, and few cared. He was asked afterward about his shoulder and responded that it had been sore, but there was no pain at that moment. That was pretty much it. Little follow-up or pursuit of details.
Zenyatta’s jockey, Mike Smith, blamed himself for not getting her to the magic 20-0 record. That got 20 times as much press as Gomez.
Racing moved on and, after that, the only attention paid to the Zenyatta-Blame classic Classic was which one would win the Eclipse Award for horse of the year (Zenyatta did).
Now, with the Breeders’ Cup back again, Friday and Saturday at Churchill — and with the likelihood that he will ride in as many as 12 of the 15 races — the 2010 Breeders’ Cup saga of Garrett Gomez deserves revisiting.
On Churchill’s Thursday card last year, the day before the big races started, Gomez was aboard a filly named Indy Bouquet, who broke down and threw him. Gomez landed hard on his shoulder and was taken to a hospital, and Indy Bouquet was euthanized. The racing world immediately took notice. Blame was the best chance to beat Zenyatta, and changing jockeys would not bode well for that.
Gomez says he was in a lot of pain, but X-rays found nothing.
“I told [agent] Ron [Anderson] that I thought I could ride the next day,” Gomez says.
And he did, winning two pre-Breeders’ Cup races and also the Juvenile Fillies Turf, aboard More Than Real. Anderson kept saying Gomez was fine and Blame’s trainer, Al Stall Jr., joked about how the calls from other jockey agents, some as far away as Europe, had begun before Gomez even got to the hospital Thursday.
By Friday, all seemed well. Except, it wasn’t. He rode in the Breeders’ Cup marathon, which turned out to be 13/4 miles of hell.
“I had trouble holding the horse,” Gomez says. It was pulling hard, and a mile and three quarters is a long way. When it was over, I had the outrider take me around to the back. I didn’t want to show how bad it was.”
It was still bad Saturday morning.
“I woke up and called Ron,” Gomez says. “I told him I needed something for the pain. I was really hurting.”
Gomez got some medication and won his 11th Breeders’ Cup race, taking the Juvenile Turf atop Pluck.
So how bad could the shoulder be?
“I had a break after that, until the Classic — something like five or six races,” Gomez says. “So I put a bag of ice on it and never took it off until it was time to get on Blame.”
In the big race, he says he got past Lookin’ At Lucky and became concerned when Zenyatta didn’t appear to be coming.
“Then, about 20 or 30 yards before the 16th pole, I could feel the crowd and I knew,” he says. “But I had done my best to keep a little in the tank, and if you look at the films, you’ll see Blame’s ears back. He was not about to let her go by.”
Gomez, using left hand only, high-fived his way back to the jockeys’ room, then awoke Sunday morning a happy, wealthy man with a very painful shoulder. He canceled his rides Sunday at Churchill and flew home to California with his wife, Pam. Later that week, shoulder still hurting, he went back to the doctors. This time, they found two hairline fractures, one high up on his shoulder and the other down his back below the shoulder blade.
He didn’t ride again until shortly before Thanksgiving, when he went back to Churchill and won on his first two mounts.
Now, it is Breeders’ Cup time again, and with no dominant story the likes of Zenyatta, Gomez might get some of the limelight he did not receive last year. Not that he’s asking.
At 39, he says his life is good. Gomez has not slipped back into the drugs and alcohol that cost him nearly all of 2003 and 2004. He still collects massive airline mileage points by focusing on bigger races, wherever they are. When the weekends are over, he flies home to Duarte and usually heads to the three-acre horse ranch he has in Norco.
“I can watch my daughter and wife ride,” he says, “and I can play with my baby horses. Then I can go over to [nearby] Goose Creek and get in some golf.
“It’s my life now. It’s how I rejuvenate.”
That’s Garrett Gomez’s story. Maybe this time, people will want to hear it.