Exercise riders are among the unsung heroes of the racing game. While the owners pay the bills and stand proudly in the winner’s circle, the trainers receive the praise for expert conditioning and the jockeys book endorsements and bask in the glow of victory, the exercise riders are often the forgotten members of the team, sometimes awkwardly standing in win pictures and identified only by those with more intimate knowledge of the winner.
“That guy is the exercise rider, I think,” the comments go.
The truth is exercise riders are the thousands of men and women who rise before the sun from coast to coast — most often seven days a week — who, without which, racing would not exist. As a group, they spend countless hours working with and developing the horses we watch, bet on and fall in love with every day, never asking for much more than for their charges to return safely to their stalls.
It takes a special skill set to be an exercise rider and being small in stature is the easy part. The job description of exercise rider is actually extensive and particular and way more than turning left in circles all morning.
Without exception, the riders we recognize daily in photos and videos aboard our favorite horses were once the ones who were speeding by, mostly blurry, in the background. All have paid their dues on the lesser-known names in the game. It’s a good bet that for every rider who makes it to work in the morning, another is nursing an injury or will never ride again thanks to an injury sustained riding a racehorse. Like jockeys, exercise riders literally risk their lives for our entertainment.
So, while the dangerous job of an exercise rider is often a thankless task with little to no fanfare, every year one lucky member of the gallop corps gets the mount of a lifetime and makes it to the winner’s circle reserved for one horse a year on the first Saturday in May under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
Last year, Nick Bush was aboard Always Dreaming before his Kentucky Derby win and, the year before him, Jonny Garcia was recognized for his handling of champion Nyquist. And everyone knows who Georgie Alvarez is thanks to Triple Crown winner American Phaoroah. This year, the honor belongs to 42-year-old Mexico native Humberto Gomez (known to friends as “Beto”), a former jockey who has been exercising horses for more than two decades, but who has only been a component of trainer Bob Baffert’s arsenal of top riders for six months.
Gomez is now forever known as the rider of 2018 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify, regardless of what happens in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
“I started freelancing for Bob in December,” Gomez said. “And I came on full time with him on January 1. And here I am. I still cannot believe it sometimes.”
While Kentucky Derby (GI) and Preakness Stakes (GI) winner Justify is most certainly his most prominent ride, the shiny chestnut son of Scat Daddy is not the first “big horse” Gomez has been aboard. Starting with 2000’s Kentucky Derby runner-up Aptitude, Gomez estimates he’s been at least the regular rider or traveling rider for more than a dozen graded stakes winners, including Medaglia d’Oro, Aptitude, Cacique and Megahertz for Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel; Breeders’ Cup winners Maryfield and Goldencents for Doug O’Neill; Firing Line for Simon Callaghan; Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner California Flag in Dubai, and many more. At one point, earlier this year, he was the regular rider for all of Baffert’s top sophomores — Justify, McKinzie and Solomini — as well as the sidelined Grade 1-winning filly Dream Tree.
Remarkably, Gomez easily handles his high-pressure situation.
“I used to get so nervous, but in the last five or six years or so I have learned to relax more and enjoy it,” Gomez said. “Yes, there is pressure. And, yes, I feel it. But I’m older now and it’s easier. I’m comfortable and confident that I can do the job right. Of course I make mistakes like everyone else, but I think being comfortable helps. This time working for [Baffert] came at the right time and I am humbled by all of it.”
Previously to his tenure with Baffert, Gomez had been chief exercise rider and assistant for his girlfriend, trainer Kristin Mulhall, who he says taught him to appreciate exactly what it takes to run a successful stable and the hard work it all involves. Though not completely oblivious to it all when just riding, as her assistant he dealt with things he never had to when simply galloping horses.
“I cannot explain what [Mulhall] taught me and what I learned,” Gomez said of his partner, who is still his girlfriend, but no longer his boss at the barn, though he says she’s still the boss of the house. “I thought I knew hard work before, but she showed me what hard work really was. When we first got together I told her I wanted to be an assistant and get my assistant trainer’s license and right away she said, ‘let’s go, let’s do it.’ She has always been supportive of anything I want to do, and I am supportive of her, too.”
And when the opportunity to work for Baffert and get on horses like Justify presented itself, Mulhall willingly let him go pursue the potential for a Derby winner. Her own charge, Imperialism, was third in the 2004 Derby and she had had been there in 2002 with her father, who was racing manager for the late Saudi Arabian Prince Ahmed Salman’s The Thoroughbred Corp. when War Emblem was victorious in 2002.
“I honestly believe that what I learned from her helped me with this experience and I appreciate her now more than ever,” Gomez said.
Part of being a good exercise rider, Gomez says, is remembering that you are only as good as the horses you are lucky enough to get on. He says it’s OK to take credit for what he does as a rider, but is quick to point out that his job is impossible without the horse.
“I think every rider hopes to get on a Derby winner,” Gomez said. “We all say to ourselves, ‘someday I will get to the Kentucky Derby.’ I’d made it before, but this time I was thinking even before he won the Derby, ‘am I really here?’ And every day since I’ve been asking myself all the time, ‘did it really happen?’ and I have to tell myself it did. And I am enjoying it, I really am. And he did this, I thank him every day.
“Up until the Derby I wouldn’t get in a winner’s circle picture with Justify. I told Kristin I wanted to wait for it to be the right time. After the Santa Anita Derby, she told me to go get in the picture and I told her no. She said, ‘Don’t be stupid. He’s your horse, you helped get him here.’ I told her I would be in a picture really believing my first one with him would be in the Kentucky Derby picture. I wanted it to mean something and it does, it means so much to me.”
Whether or not Justify becomes the 13th Triple Crown winner on Saturday, Gomez said he’s going to enjoy the precious time he has left helping his charge pursue his status as a racing legend. When the Triple Crown trail has ended, he will return home to Mulhall and their little farm, ready to climb aboard the incoming Baffert-trained babies filled with promise and potential, as well as continuing on with Justify for as long as he’s still a racehorse.
But the treasured memories of two very special days in May will forever remain for Gomez.
“I knew [Justify] was special from the beginning, from the first time I got on him and I have proof,” Gomez said. “On about the third or fourth day I got on him, I asked the groom to take a picture of us and I sent it to Kristin and told her he was ‘The One.’ I mean, the others were also good and I loved McKinzie and Solomini, but Justify was different.
“The other night Jimmy [assistant trainer Barnes] and I had dinner with Bob and he said the same thing he’s been saying to us all along. He tells everyone around the horse to be happy and enjoy the experience, enjoy the ride. He’s been here before and he knows how important it is to just appreciate the experience and he means it. He wants us all to have this experience and remember it for the rest of our lives.
“And sometimes I’m so happy I feel like I can raise my hands and touch the sky.”