Nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, a world unto its own exists. Santa Anita, the Great Race Place, is like its own galaxy… seemingly far, far away from the hustle and bustle of nearby Los Angeles.
Not unlike Obi Wan Kenobi, the Jedi Master gifted in the ways and mysteries of the Force, the late Garrett Gomez was known to many as a gifted master of his craft in the Sport of Kings. He was the undisputed master of the finish line, with a closing strength that sometimes seemed almost supernatural. Widely appreciated and respected, none understand the true nature of his gifts with the Force more than those who raced alongside him.
Our beloved Star Wars character, Obi Wan, served as a mentor in teaching the ways of the Force to his young apprentice Luke Skywalker, but our perceptions and beliefs changed when he died sooner than we had expected. However, his presence stayed with his young Jedi apprentice. A generous and deliberate mentor, Gomez likewise lives in the hearts and minds of riders he mentored and cared for deeply. His own untimely death leaves us wondering how his otherworldly presence just might appear.
Garrett – or “Go-Go” as he was known around the racetrack – was a dual Eclipse Award winning rider, who won 13 Breeders’ Cup Races and a record 176 stakes races. He retired just short of the 4,000 win career milestone. Riding professionally since he was 16, many of his more than 20,000 mounts occurred on the track at Santa Anita. During his career, he was an accessible rider, not only guiding willing riders, but happily signing autographs for fans, and politely talking with owners and trainers for the betterment of the sport.
Somewhat like a young Jedi Knight himself, Champion rider Joe Talamo won the 2007 U.S. Champion Apprentice Jockey title when he was just 17 years old. A winning rider from the onset of his career, Joe sought the guidance and insight of the legendary Gomez because he admired his accomplishments and polish.
“Garrett (was) the best finisher in the sport. He was always in the right spot; he had tremendous form, and he just knew how to finish strong,” Talamo declares. Riders loved Garrett because they always knew where they stood with him. He brought simplicity and clarity to an often complex world of race riding.
“He was brutally honest,” Joe emphasizes. “He would never cherry coat a thing.” It didn’t matter if Joe had won the race or not, Gomez would bluntly point out anything he might be doing inconsistently or wrong.
“I won a $10,000 claiming race at Hollywood Park and I was thrilled,” animates Talamo. “But Garrett corrected me because it wasn’t a text book ride. Garrett emphasized riding basics; momentum, not moving too much, making the ride easy for the horse. He taught me to understand that every owner, every horse and every fan deserved the absolute best from the rider. Each race should be ridden like it’s a championship race.”
As far as Talamo is concerned, Garrett will be right there riding along with him even now at Santa Anita. “Especially in the turf races,” says Talamo. “Garrett will be saying, ‘you’ve got to be patient and steady–just like you’re riding a bike.’”
“I admired him immensely,” rider Norberto Arroyo, Jr. says devotedly. “He was a perfect rider down the stretch.” A rider with both a checkered and seasoned history, Norberto first met Gomez while riding in New York. “I had gotten out of prison for drug possession and was trying to rebuild my life. Garrett called me every day. He cared about me. He wanted me to succeed. Soon, I was back to winning again.”
Sometimes, you need a friend you can boast to. With all of the smack talk flying around germane to competitive environments like a jockey colony, it can be important to know someone who will agree with you when you need to brag about accomplishments. For jockeys, it can be something as rudimentary as maintaining form, or finding the right timing.
“We would brag about each other,” Norberto says with a wide smile. “He’d say, ‘You look good!’ and he’d mean it! I’d tell him the same thing, and he knew I meant it, too.” Norberto, known for his aggressive riding style, appreciated the emphasis on timing that Gomez would share with him. “Coming off the pace, Garrett was always about conserving your horse. He really taught me how to understand that to get the best from my horse.”
Returning to Santa Anita, where he has won stakes races in the past, Norberto believes Gomez will be with him in many ways. “We’d attend meetings together. We enjoyed each other’s company. I miss him.” Clean and sober now for more than 2 ½ years, Norberto is looking forward to the meet. “I’m fresh, full of energy, and ready to rumble!”
His mentor Garrett Gomez would appreciate that.
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