Annise Montplaisir, a junior at North Dakota State University in Fargo who spent last summer as an intern on the staff at The Saratoga Special, looks back at a memorable Breeders' Cup experience from the not-so-distant past in a recent post on her Annise's Anecdotes blog.
The first horse racing magazine I ever opened was a copy of the May/June 2008 issue of Thoroughbred Style.
I don't even know if it's in print anymore, and a Google search didn't provide much for answers. I can't remember how exactly it ended up in my 13-year-old hands, but I'm pretty sure someone at the North Dakota Horse Park gave it to me. On page 45 was an article called "Gomez and the Mig," about now-former jockeys Garrett Gomez and Richard Migliore, by Steve Schuelein and Bill Heller. At the time I wanted to be a jockey, ignoring that I was nearing 5'7" in height. But I poured over that article to gain insight on the careers of two successful jockeys, hoping one day I would have their skill.
Later that year I tuned into the Breeders' Cup on NBC for the first time in my life and watched Garrett Gomez take home four Breeders' Cup victories, with my personal favorite in the Juvenile aboard Midshipman.
In September of 2010 I won a 4-H speech competition at the MN State 4-H Horse Show with a piece I had written about my favorite racehorse, Ruffian. I qualified to advance on to the Eastern National 4-H Horse Roundup held in Louisville, Kentucky in November. Lucky for me, the competition was at the same time at the Breeders' Cup, so as an early Christmas present I received tickets to BC Friday.
My mom - my ever faithful travel companion, cheerleader and personal secretary - planned the trip so we could arrive early and visit Lexington in addition to Louisville. Prior to leaving I caught a nasty cold that caused my ears to throb for the entire plane ride. By the time we arrived in Louisville on a Wednesday afternoon, I was sick, tired, running a fever and hungry as a horse. We took our rental car and located a Chinese restaurant a couple blocks away from Churchill Downs. It was a tiny hole in the wall kind of place with good smells and a cozy atmosphere. Little booths were squished against one another along the walls with tables and chairs neatly arranged around the room. As we waited for our order in a booth, I laid my head down on my arm and stared at the pop machine across the room, trying to keep my eyes open.
A man walked in the door of the quiet restaurant. I turned my head slightly as he walked up to the counter to place an order, analyzing his short, lean and athletic frame and slightly weathered face. He was clearly a jockey, but not just any jockey - it was Garret Gomez. I had never gone all fan-girl over boy bands or celebrities, but famous jockeys were a different story. I shot straight up and shook my mom's arm.
"That's Garrett Gomez!" I whispered fiercely. "THAT'S GARRETT GOMEZ!!!"
Neither my mom nor I knew much about horse racing at the time, but she had heard me talk about him enough to know he was my favorite jockey.
"Go talk to him!" she urged me.
"But I don't know what to say!"
He sat down in the booth directly behind us. My mom, being the brave and forthright soul that she is, turned around and asked him "Are you Garrett Gomez?"
"Yes I am," he responded kindly.
My head popped up over the back of the booth.
"I'm a reeeeeeaaaaallllyyyy big fan!"
Mr. Gomez smiled brightly and invited us to come sit with him while he waited for his food. He talked to us about horse racing and working in the industry, and showed us pictures on his phone of his kids and his little girl jumping her pony in a riding lesson. He allowed me to take a picture with him before he left with his Chinese takeout. I hugged my mom and we bounced around like crazy fools. And then the door opened and he walked back in, carrying an autographed purple Breeders' Cup hat. We thanked him profusely and he smiled brightly. I'm sure he knew that my Breeders' Cup experience had been made then and there, in a tiny hole in the wall Chinese restaurant, a few blocks away from Churchill Downs.
The hat still sits in my bedroom next to the countless other horse racing hats I've collected since then, a reminder of the first horse racing "celebrity" I ever met. It's one of my favorite mementos, and became even more special to me after Garrett Gomez announced his retirement from racing earlier this year.
The other day I dug out that issue of Thoroughbred Style and flipped through to "Gomez and the Mig." But this time as I read it, I wasn't analyzing the success of the jockeys, for I was never meant to become one. Instead I thought of how cool it was to work alongside greats like Richard Migliore as media this past summer at Saratoga. I appreciated the article for its smooth writing style and finely crafted story, and reflected on the memories made since the first time someone handed me that magazine.