LAS VEGAS — In the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, it seemed that winning jockey Garrett Gomez was riding against one horse — and it wasn’t Zenyatta.
Racing down the backstretch in the $5 million stakes, Gomez had Blame about 10 lengths off of the early pace being set by First Dude. With the early speed tiring entering the stretch, Blame surged with a 4-wide move through horses with Lookin At Lucky just to his outside.
Gomez said, at that point, he looked over at jockey Martin Garcia — the rider who replaced him on Lookin At Lucky after the colt’s sixth-place finish as the Kentucky Derby favorite. Two weeks after the Derby, Garcia rode Lookin At Lucky to victory in the Preakness Stakes, and then Garcia won both the Haskell Invitational and the Indiana Derby on the colt.
“When I turned for home, I said ‘he is not going to beat me,’ ” said Gomez, who was speaking to 128 horseplayers Dec. 21 at the South Point Casino race book in Las Vegas.
Blame began inching away from Lookin At Lucky with 300 yards to go. Then Blame kept on going to lead Lookin At Lucky by almost four lengths at the wire, as Zenyatta closed to miss by a head.
Although Lookin At Lucky is a talented colt and Gomez is a great rider, the two never clicked last spring, so trainer Bob Baffert gave the mount to Garcia for the Preakness. Rarely does Gomez get pulled from a horse due to poor riding, but when it happens he is determined to make the trainer and owner regret it.
“That’s what I try to do,” Gomez said. “If I am not on the horse, then I want them to wish I was when it’s over.”
In the Kentucky Derby, Lookin At Lucky was shut off coming out of post position one, which forced Gomez to steady. Then in the front stretch, Lookin At Lucky was bumped hard on the sloppy track, forcing Gomez to pull the horse toward the rear.
Lookin At Lucky, who usually runs in mid-pack, was 20 lengths behind down the Derby backstretch. He ran on gamely, but was never a threat to Derby winner Super Saver.
Also, Gomez was aboard Lookin At Lucky in his previous race, the Santa Anita Derby. Again, Gomez, who lost this race too, got into trouble with the colt and was forced to steady.
After losing these two races, Baffert had seen enough and made a change.
Gomez and Baffert have had a great relationship over the years, with Baffert replacing many jockeys so Gomez could ride his best horses. Because of Gomez’ history with Baffert, and the fact that the two have won several Breeders Cup races together, Gomez thinks he would have chosen Lookin At Lucky over Blame as his BC mount.
Gomez expects to keep riding for Baffert in the future.
During the talk at South Point, radio host Ralph Siraco — who was interviewing Gomez at the front of the room — asked the jockey how concerned he was about Zenyatta, who won 19 straight races coming into the Classic.
Gomez said Zenyatta is a tremendous race horse, but he knew she had one glaring hole in her resume. Although Zenyatta won the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic, that race was on Santa Anita’s synthetic surface and the 2010 Classic was at Churchill Downs.
“She had never run against really good horses on dirt,” Gomez said. “Now she was going to be facing the best in the country on dirt.”
Everybody knew Zenyatta would make a stretch run, and when Gomez saw her coming, he intentionally drifted Blame toward her to help keep Blame’s competitive juices flowing. It worked, as Blame held on.
About a month before the Classic, Gomez knew that Blame would be retired after the race. The 4-year-old is going to stand at Claiborne Farm, which is a beautiful, peaceful place with open pastures and rolling hills. “I would like to retire there myself,” Gomez joked.
Siraco asked Gomez whether he thinks Blame should be Horse of the Year over Zenyatta. Gomez has a bias, he admitted, but thinks that the debate was settled on the track.
“I would like to win the Eclipse myself, just like I would like to see Blame win Horse of the Year” Gomez said. “I think he deserves it.”
Siraco took the microphone into the crowd where a horseplayer asked Gomez if he was ever involved in a fight with another jockey like the one between Calvin Borel and Javier Castellano on Breeders’ Cup day.
Jockeys risk their lives during the course of the race, Gomez said, and they have their own code to police reckless riders who endanger others. Most times, it involves strong language and sometimes fighting.
“That’s usually the way we take care of it, but most of the time we wait until we are back in the jockey’s room,” Gomez said.
Also, the stewards are responsible for keeping racing safe, but Gomez does not think it’s necessary for them to interview the jockeys before making a decision. Some riders speak broken English, which gives the articulate ones an advantage, Gomez said.
Gomez gave the audience some things to think about when handicapping the races.
Often horseplayers studying past performances don’t fully realize that horses have good days and bad days — just like people, Gomez said. Sometimes they want to run and other days they just don’t feel like doing anything. For example, maybe the horse developed the flu on race day and the trainer did not detect it, the rider said.
Handicappers, Gomez advised, can look for signs of aggressiveness to confirm whether the horses they bet are feeling good.
Blame, for example, will usually try to nip the stable pony that leads him to the starting gate. But before the Jockey Club Gold Cup in October, Blame never tried to bite the pony at all — and he finished a well-beaten third, Gomez said.
“In the Breeders Cup Classic, he was back on his game. He had more of the fight that he had at the beginning of the year,” Gomez said.
Another racing fan asked Gomez about jockeys who look over their shoulders in the stretch. When he looks back, Gomez said, a lot of times it is to see how much energy he needs to ask his horse to expend before hitting the wire.
“You are getting a gauge on the competition,” he said.
Sometimes Gomez will wait on a horse before pulling away because “that knocks the try out of them.”
He doesn’t prepare much the night before the races because Gomez prefers to wait to see which horses are scratched. His agent, Ron Anderson, makes almost all the decisions about who he will ride, and Gomez loves synthetic tracks, especially the one at Keeneland.
However, the synthetics at Hollywood and Del Mar do not have the right components in the mixture, he said.
“Out of all of the synthetic tracks we have (in California),” Gomez said, “none were installed correctly.”
Santa Anita, which opens Dec. 26, put in a new dirt track and Gomez reported that it is getting good reviews.
During workouts, horses are bouncing right over it, he added.
“It is supposed to be a sandy race track, but for some reason they are working fast,” Gomez said.
Gomez, who grew up at the racetrack, said his father rode 22 years at small tracks in New Mexico. Gomez began his riding career in Phoenix, then went to Nebraska and later to the larger tracks in the Midwest. In 1994, Gomez took his tack to Del Mar, but returned to the Midwest after Del Mar ended.
In 1998, Gomez came back to California for good where he now makes his home with his wife and two daughters. He built an equistrian arena on his property, which his 7-year-old uses to practice riding. “It is just a great family fun spot,” Gomez said.
Gomez, 38, who usually traverses the country riding the best horses in the biggest races, would like to spend more time with his family in California in 2011.
“Over the course of the next year, I am going to play it by ear,” Gomez said. “I would like to stay in California, but if the racing doesn’t get a lot better then I am going to have to head out again.”