The Pact: Garret Gomez’s Greatest Legacy

Part I

(July 18, 2017) In three weeks, all eyes in the thoroughbred racing world will be focused on Saratoga Springs, New York, and the Hall of Fame Museum building located on Union Avenue just across from Saratoga Racetrack where a select group of the best of the best in the Sport of Kings will be forever enshrined and recognized as among the greatest ever.

In addition to three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile (GIT) winner Goldikova, Triple Crown winner Victor Espinoza and four-time Eclipse Award-winner Javier Castellano will stand at the podium and be recognized for careers which have surpassed the extraordinary, and it’s a good bet each will emotionally thank those who helped make it possible — family, friends, horsemen and the horses themselves.

Unfortunately, the fourth honoree won’t be there.

Jockey Garrett Gomez passed away at age 44 from a drug overdose in a Tucson, Arizona, Indian casino hotel room on Dec. 14 — just months before realizing the career goal he held as the Holy Grail. How his actual induction presentation will go remains a mystery, as the Hall of Fame is currently working with the grieving family members he left behind. But one thing is certain: the tragedy of a promising and talent-filled life left incomplete still resonates deeply with the people who loved him most, especially his widow Pam and his four children, Collin, Shelby, Jared, and Amanda, and his absence at his induction (he was selected the fifth time he was nominated) will be palpable.

Pam Gomez has never been immune to the gossip that constantly and consistently followed her deceased husband’s life both on and off the racetrack or the fact that some of it bled into questions about their marriage, but after spending nearly two decades together she says she is past defending him or their relationship and is focused on raising her two children (Jared and Amanda) while hoping that sharing the story of their marriage will help other racetrack families in crisis.

During their darkest days, both individually and as a couple, Garrett and Pam relied heavily on the Winners Foundation, an organization located in a small building just outside the back stable gate at Santa Anita Park. The Winners Foundation is an organization offering confidential assistance to members of the Southern California horseracing community and their families both in formal recovery programs, as well as continuing support via information and counseling services.

Pam says that after Garrett started working with the Winners Foundation in the mid-2000s, he experienced his longest period of sobriety and what she says was his happiest times.

Unfortunately, most tracks don’t have facilities like the Winners Foundation, so Pam hopes that opening up some of the details of her life with Garrett will help not only other racetrack families in crisis but also shine a light on the need for similar resources at tracks across the country.

The Pact

“If I ever use drugs and alcohol, get out. Take our kids, however many we have, and run. Don’t walk, run.”

Pam Gomez remembers Garrett’s words that day as if it were yesterday even though he said them just before they got married on June 1, 1999. At that point, the pair had been dating for a couple of years and after she finally agreed to a wedding after losing a hole during a round of golf, her groom-to-be got frighteningly real with her for the first time in their relationship. Though she’d seen a hint of it before briefly when they first started dating and she dragged him home — in a drunken stupor — out of a Las Vegas hotel, their courtship had been substance-free. At the time of their wedding and when she made her pact with her husband, Pam had no idea how prophetic those words would turn out to be.

“He told me not to listen to a word he said unless he was sober,” Pam recalled of that day. “And he meant it. At first, it scared me, but, looking back, I don’t think he was ever more serious about anything as long as we were together. He said he wanted me to be something he had to fight to get back to. I agreed, of course, but I had no idea what I was agreeing to, really, or how that pact would affect the rest of my life.”

After their wedding, Pam and Garrett lived in what she describes as “mostly” marital bliss for a couple of years and, before long, the pair welcomed their first child together, a son they named Jared. Not long after, Pam was expecting their second child, a daughter to be named Amanda, and she admits she could not have enjoyed her time with her young family more. Her husband was atop the Southern California jockey standings and the financial rewards helped them purchase their first home together and they both remained focused on their family.

It was at this time that Garrett scheduled a mini-vacation to Mexico with some other jockeys and the cracks started to reveal themselves. That plan, Pam remembers, was her first glimpse at how bad things could really be.

“[Fellow jockey] Alex [Solis] called and told me Garrett didn’t show up in Mexico,” Pam remembers. “He had been a little off for a few months, I noticed that, but he was golfing a lot and still present, so I didn’t think too much of it.

“But when Alex said, ‘Pammy, I think we have a problem,’ I knew. I instantly packed up the house and my belongings and got out of there. I was panicking, but that was the deal I made with him. And it was the first time I realized the pact was the biggest gift he would ever give me to protect me.

“I found out quickly that he was two different people — the good guy who was sober and loved me and our family and the bad guy who was an addict. I had to hide at our friends’ houses and he always showed up. We’d call the police and it happened so many times the police knew him. And because everything we owned was in my name because he was afraid if he was using he’d blow it all when I’d protected it, I gave the police permission to open the trunk and they found the drugs and arrested him. I was so grateful because finally he had to face his problems and I knew it would get him to rehab.”

Following that arrest, Pam says, Garrett entered and checked himself out of more than a dozen rehab centers within just a few months without ever managing to stay sober. However, thanks to pending drug charges in Los Angeles and Pasadena, he was arrested in mid-2003 in a Temecula, California, casino and subsequently spent 40 days in jail on several warrants for drug possession and paraphernalia and failure to appear.

That incarceration became a turning point that led to Garrett’s longest stint sober.

Pam says that soon after being released from jail, Garrett reached out to the Winners Foundation for the first time and, before long, Garrett was clean and healthy riding every day and spending a lot of time enjoying his family. Things weren’t perfect, Pam recalls, but Garrett was present and had never been more successful in his career, riding in all the big-stakes races around the country.

“I think without the Winners Foundation, Garrett would have died then,” Pam explains. “We both leaned heavily on them and everyone was there for us without question. I’m not so sure I’d have made it without the Winners Foundation, to be honest, and I know Garrett wouldn’t have.”

At the time, the only sign of the obsessive-compulsive behavior indicative of his drug use that remained was his overwhelming need to always be what Pam describes as “better.” It wasn’t enough for Garrett to win a race and watch the replay of his wins, he watched every race and every trip from other jockeys and their mounts every day. It became a family ritual to watch replays every night after dinner.

“He couldn’t shut it off,” Pam said. “But it kept him focused and that kept him sober, which was a good thing.”

In 2006, sitting as Southern California’s top jockey, Garrett briefly relocated to the East Coast to ride first-call for trainer Todd Pletcher after the trainer’s go-to jockey, John Velazquez, broke his shoulder blade. While the East Coast opportunities were exceptional and Garrett won a lot of races and earned a lot of money, Pam said he missed his family and his children, who remained on the West Coast. Though they eventually purchased a home in New York, by the end of the year were back in Southern California again riding for the state’s biggest stables.

“We did the best we could to spend as much time together as a family then,” Pam remembers. “Even when he was in New York he flew home a lot on the dark days to see us when we weren’t there visiting him. And every time he left to go back I know it broke his heart. I had young children starting school and a life here [in California]; we agreed uprooting our family wasn’t a good idea. And being alone wasn’t good for him. I know he was tempted, but he didn’t stumble. And I was proud of him — so proud.”

By that point their daughter Amanda had also become a fledgling equestrian, riding before she could walk, and Pam says Garrett could not have been more excited to share that bond with her. It was something that father and daughter shared until his death, despite the addiction, and until the end of his life, he regularly showed anyone and everyone who was around photos on his phone of Amanda riding.

The Book

Not long thereafter, Gomez embarked on what Pam describes as the work he was most proud of outside of his accomplishments in the saddle. Teaming up with award-winning author Dr. Rudy Alvarado, Garrett painfully and emotionally opened his soul and spent months telling his life story in a memoir he titled “The Garrett Gomez Story: A Jockey’s Journey Through Addiction and Salvation.”

Though Garrett knew a lot of people and had a ton of fans, Pam said he didn’t let a lot of people get close. He didn’t have a lot of friends to share his secrets with, so she saw how cathartic it was for Garrett to pour his soul into the book. He really believed his story would help people and he pledged every penny he made from sales to the Winners Foundation in gratitude for helping him through his darkest days. The only problem, Pam says, was that, though sober when writing the book, by the time it was published in mid-2012 Garrett had already slipped back into addiction and she was the only one who knew…


Part II

The Last Sober Day

(July 21, 2017) Pam Gomez has a memory like a steel trap when it comes to her husband and their lives together, from the good times and the bad, the birth of their children, his highs as a jockey and his lows, his wins, losses and injuries, his multiple stints in rehab and even the last day he was ever sober.

On January 8, 2012, Gomez was headed to post at Santa Anita aboard a horse named Silver Summation before the day’s Daytona Stakes when he was tossed off and landed hard on his heel. Not only did he not ride the race, he was soon after headed straight to the emergency room at nearby Arcadia Methodist Hospital with a completely shattered heel.

At that time, Garrett had been sober for several years and his sobriety was of the utmost importance to the then 39-year-old jockey. He’d lost everything to drugs and alcohol in the past, including his family, and his acute self-awareness made him ever conscious of his sobriety.

“We were in the ER and he was in a ton of pain,” Pam recalls of that day shortly after New Year’s in 2012. “He had his x-rays and the doctor came in and told us about the damage and that he’d probably need surgery. He also said he had an obligation to give Garrett something for the intense pain he was in.

“At that moment Garrett looked me in the eyes and begged and said, ‘Please, babe, don’t let them give me anything. I can’t have anything. I’m okay with the pain.’

“I spoke to the doctor and he told me he had no choice and it was his responsibility. So Garrett reluctantly said OK and that was the last time he was sober for the rest of his life.”

In hindsight, Pam says that standing in that emergency room she knew it was the beginning of the end of her marriage to the rider and also of his life. Garrett could control a lot of things, she says, but his addictions were not on that list. And though initially his drug usage was limited to the medication prescribed to deal with the pain of his injury and subsequent surgery, she knew he was using it to self-medicate and was struggling with keeping it away from the track.

While he didn’t take medication before riding, he more than made up for it after the last day’s race every day, and, by late 2013, he couldn’t control his addictions anymore. He would ride his last race on Oct. 5, 2013, his Hall of Fame career ending with no fight left.

At that time, Pam honored the pact she made with her husband before their wedding for what would be the final time.

“One day he called me and said he was on the way up the hill [to their house] with an eight ball of cocaine and a 12-pack of beer. So I did what he knew I’d do: I packed up what I could, grabbed the kids, and moved to our place in Norco [about 40 miles from their home] and that was it. We never went back.”

Dream Realized Posthumously

Aside from his children the two things most important to Garrett according to anyone who knew him, Pam recalls, were winning the Kentucky Derby and achieving the Hall of Fame. The closest he came to winning the Run for the Roses was a second-place finish aboard Pioneerof the Nile in 2009 and, unfortunately, his Hall of Fame dream was realized just months after he died. One of the people Garrett felt closest to remembers how significant the honor was to him.

“Every year he’d ask me, “Have you heard about the Hall of Fame, have you heard about the Hall of Fame?’ recalls Amy Zimmerman, Vice President of Business Coordination and Director of Broadcasting at Santa Anita Park and also one of Garrett’s few friends. “Every year he’d ask me what I thought his chances were and, even then, it meant a lot to him to be there and accept the award. I can’t help but wonder if this were two years ago, would he be accepting the award himself? That’s how much it meant to him. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.”

Zimmerman, who also serves as a producer for NBC Sports’ coverage of horse racing and is a multiple Emmy and Eclipse Award winner, also lived down the road from Pam and Garrett and facilitated the making of the documentary “118 Days,” which chronicled the rider’s determination to return from his heel injury in time to make the 2012 Kentucky Derby.

“We were friends, but we were also co-workers,” Zimmerman said. “We lived four houses down from each other. We did the Fourth of July together and watched the fireworks together with the kids. Things friends and neighbors do.

“Garrett had a finite time to get ready [for the Kentucky Derby] and I knew how much the Derby meant to him and what it would take for him to make it. [Filmmakers Todd Crites and Jackson Nguyen] told a great story of a guy with a devastating injury and how he pressed and pushed himself to make it back.”

The 26-minute film was extremely well-received by the racing industry and as proud as Zimmerman was of the project, she was more pleased that people were able to see the person she felt was “real” Garrett.

“I didn’t know Garrett was not sober,” Zimmerman recalls. “He had an incredible self-awareness to keep it away from work. And one thing about him people should know is that he was incredibly proud of his children, especially Amanda. He had pictures of her on his phone and would show them off to people, and he knew every class she was in, the results, and how it all went down.

“The thing I think people don’t know about Garrett is that he was inherently shy. He was shy and very businesslike, which came off sometimes as aloof and angry when he was none of those things. I think people perceive Garrett Gomez as someone who was always a junkie, always a druggie, and he wasn’t. The substance abuse was secondary. He was a kind, sweet man who had a lot of demons. He was not a partier, he loved horses and he loved his family and he was always trying to do right by all of them — and he couldn’t with everything going on inside his head.

“He was especially kind to my son Henry. He didn’t have to be, but he was. They had a special bond. The hardest thing was having to tell Henry that Garrett wasn’t coming back and explaining it to a little boy.”

An Addict’s Legacy

The curse of having a strong memory is that sometimes the memories aren’t ones the heart wants to remember. The day Pam found out Garrett had died she had spent the day at Santa Anita, the place Garrett achieved his greatest success and one of the places she says Garrett loved most. Pam was assisting friends in the production of a commercial for the inaugural Pegasus World Cup when the caller ID on her phone showed Garrett’s oldest daughter Shelby calling. “I knew,” Pam remembers, tears welling up in her eyes. “I knew before I answered. I handed the phone to Amanda and Shelby confirmed what we knew. And as devastated as we were, we weren’t surprised. Before then, he had called and left me some voicemails, which I still have, begging me to talk to him and come get him, but I couldn’t. I had to honor our pact — for our children but also for him. I knew at that point the only person who could help him was him. And my children were finally thriving and I couldn’t bring that back into their lives.

Do I have some regret about that? Sure, but as much as I miss him and hoped we’d work it out, that was the right choice.”

Garrett’s body was cremated and several members of his family gathered in his hometown of Tucson several weeks after his death to remember him. Pam wears her husband’s wedding ring on a chain around her neck along with an imprint of his thumb as a constant memory of the good times she shared with him. She believes that Garrett’s spirit is ever-present and she sometimes finds herself talking to “him” when she’s faced with life’s questions, not unlike many who’ve lost loved ones. This summer Pam and Amanda will travel to New York as now-14-year-old Amanda pursues her dream of becoming an Olympian, riding in the Young Riders competition at the HITS Saugerties horse show and gaining the experience she’ll need to someday make the Olympic equestrian team.

And though Pam doesn’t know where she’ll be on Aug. 4 as her late husband is initiated into the club he was so desperate to be a part of in life — mostly because things are not all together peaceful between her and Garrett’s family (the details of which she can’t discuss for legal reasons) — she remains hopeful that, at the very least, her children will be there. Currently, officials at the Hall of Fame are in discussions with various family members on how the presentation will take place, and while preferring to stay out of any drama, they want to make sure one thing is clear on induction day.

“It is Garrett’s day,” Brien Bouyea, Director of Communications for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, says. “And we plan to honor Garrett how he should be honored. We are working with the family to come up with a solution and things have moved in a positive direction, but we will ultimately do what is best for Garrett. There will be a video presentation and I’m sure some family members, probably his daughter Amanda, will speak briefly, but we’re still working out how that will go.”

And while many people considered themselves one of Garrett’s inner circle, the truth is even he acknowledged that he could count on one hand the number of people he both trusted and let in his life, according to Pam. One of them, Damien Scott, said though he prefers to keep the details of their friendship and conversations confidential, he is thrilled about his buddy’s Hall of Fame honor and believes that if anyone wants to know how Garrett really felt about racing they can refer to the rider’s own words on social media announcing his retirement.

“I think if anyone wants to know how Garrett felt, they should go read his Facebook page,” Scott said. “Those were his own words, he wrote it and that’s how he felt. He was always grateful for the opportunities racing gave him and died grateful for the career he had.”

At the end of the day, Pam says she hopes her life with her husband — all the ups and all the downs — ultimately serves a positive purpose. While opening herself up to the reality of her marriage and the subsequent questions and criticisms is tough, she hopes it brings awareness to the need for a Winners Foundation at every track. She feels that addiction is something the racing community needs to direct some resources toward and she also hopes that, when Garrett’s Hall of Fame plaque is hung among the names her husband himself revered, everyone who knew him either personally or as a fan thinks of their favorite memory of him.

“Their favorite horse he rode, their favorite race, the time he signed an autograph or took a picture with them,” Pam said. “It should be a celebration in his memory and I know that would make him happy.”

Editor’s Note: For those suffering from addiction or those with loved ones suffering from addiction, please look into getting help.

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