LOUISVILLE — When the gates open Saturday at Churchill Downs, Garrett Gomez will be riding in his sixth Kentucky Derby.
"But this feels like my first real chance to win the Kentucky Derby," the 37-year-old jockey said Thursday.
When Gomez takes a leg up on Pioneerof the Nile, one of the Derby favorites on the first Saturday in May, it will be the apex of a five-year rise for the Arizona native whose career had nearly crashed and burned.
"Through the years, the stuff that I've been through," said Gomez, "the jail cells, the alcohol, the drug abuse, it just makes me more grateful for what I have today."
More grateful to be the 2008 Eclipse Award winner for outstanding jockey. More grateful to have such an impressive mount in the world's most famous race.
"He's a good guy," said Bob Baffert, Pioneerof the Nile's trainer. "He loves the horse. He's really articulate in what he thinks about. He's got a strategy planned out. He knows what he's doing."
Wasn't always the case.
Gomez's career started in 1988 at Santa Fe Downs. He rode the fair circuit before moving to Nebraska, and then to Arkansas, where Gomez rode back-to-back Arkansas Derby winners Concern in 1994 and Dazzling Falls in 1995.
His first Kentucky Derby ride was Southern Rhythm, who finished seventh in 1994. He rode Dazzling Falls to a 13th-place finish in 1995.
It would be 11 years before Gomez's next Derby mount, however. Drugs got in the way. And alcohol. And run-ins with the law.
His wife, Pam, told USA Today last year, "I tried to get him arrested as often as I could. You get rest when they get arrested."
Finally, in late summer 2003, Gomez was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. He was sentenced to 40 days in jail. At completion, he entered rehab, and for 21 months Gomez was out of racing.
He returned in September 2004 but not to the best mounts. Yet his winning percentage improved. And slowly but surely, so did his mounts. Better trainers began trusting him with better horses.
Then in 2006, Todd Pletcher's top rider, John Velazquez, was injured in an accident at Keeneland. Pletcher needed a new go-to guy. He chose Gomez, coaxing the Californian to come east. By year's end, Gomez was the nation's leading rider in earnings.
"My career has really taken off the last five to six years," Gomez said Thursday. "I've had the opportunity to ride some really good horses."
Gomez was aboard the 2007 Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches. Alas, a month later, Gomez was on Hard Spun for the Belmont, leaving Velazquez to ride Rags to Riches to that historic victory.
Maybe this is the year to make up for that. Gomez got the Derby mount on Bob and John in 2006, his first ride in the race since '95, only to finish 17th. He rode Any Given Saturday to an eighth-place finish in '07. His Court Vision ran 13th last year.
Gomez rode both Pletcher's Dunkirk and Baffert's Pioneerof the Nile through this year's Derby preps. When time came to choose, Gomez picked Pioneerof the Nile.
"It was a ridiculously tough call," said Ron Anderson, Gomez's trainer.
"Pioneer's strength is he has so many strengths," said Gomez on Thursday. "Whatever the race calls for, he can do."
Can he run on dirt? That's the question. The colt's races have been on the synthetic surfaces in California.
"But he's handled the dirt real well here," said Gomez. "He's even handled the mud well. We got pretty excited about the way he's handled the mud."
Baffert is excited just to have Gomez.
"He's one of those guys who does well with the good horses," said the trainer who has won three Derbys. "He rises to the occasion."
Maybe because, after what he's been through, he's thankful for the occasion.
"I have a clear mind about it, now," said Garrett Gomez. "I'm more respectful of the horse and my opportunity."