Life is sweet for Garrett Gomez, and not just because he rides a filly by that name in Saturday’s Santa Margarita Handicap. The Eclipse Award winner the last two years as the nation’s outstanding jockey, Gomez also rides prohibitive favorite Pioneerof the Nile Saturday in the San Felipe Stakes.
Victories in those races would give Gomez 17 stakes wins at Santa Anita this meet, putting him within two of tying the record shared by Laffit Pincay Jr. (1982-83) and Corey Nakatani (1996-97) for most in a single Santa Anita campaign. Gomez, a 37-year-old native of Tucson, also is seeking his fourth consecutive national title in purse earnings. He currently is on top with more than $3 million. He also leads the standings at Santa Anita through 55 days of the 84-day session with 68 victories, 10 more than runner-up Rafael Bejarano.

If Gomez does break Santa Anita’s stakes mark, he would have to do it some two weeks before the meet ends on April 19. Agent Ron Anderson has Gomez scheduled to ride regularly at Keeneland when the Kentucky meet opens on April 3, through April 24, except for a return to California on April 4 to ride in the Santa Anita Derby.

“I feel good about how things are going, definitely,” Gomez said. “We’ve been riding some live horses and some good horses. Things are good.

“I’ve been working Pioneerof the Nile and he’s been excellent,” Gomez continued. “He’s been doing exactly what Bob (Baffert) wants him to do. He’s been finishing and galloping out well in all of his works. He’s putting on a little weight and he’s maturing as he’s growing up.”

Gomez is unconcerned about a possible unfavorable pace in the Grade II San Felipe at a mile and a sixteenth. Pioneerof the Nile needed a furious late burst to win the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at the same distance in his last start on Feb. 7, rallying from fifth at the head of the stretch in a nine-horse field.

“He’s a versatile horse, as he showed in the CashCall Futurity,” Gomez said. “He was close to the pace (third in a field of 11, winning by a nose over I Want Revenge in the mile and one sixteenth race at Hollywood Park last Dec. 20), and chased two horses. In the Lewis, it wasn’t a very good trip, and he still got up. He showed me something I didn’t know he had, and that was a turn of foot, so that just adds one more weapon in his arsenal.”
All six of Pioneerof the Nile’s races have been at a mile and a sixteenth.

Gomez is two-for-two on Life Is Sweet since the 4-year-old daughter of Storm Cat came east for owners/breeders Marty and Pam Wygod. Trained by Bill Mott before winning the El Encino Stakes and the La Caňada Stakes at Santa Anita, Life Is Sweet now is trained by John Shirreffs.

“I guess she’s enjoying California,” Gomez said. “She came back off a little layoff and John’s done a tremendous job with her in these last couple races. She’s done nothing wrong and she’s a beautiful filly.”

The 15 stakes victories by Gomez to date are as follows: Sir Beaufort Stakes, Dec. 26, Gio Ponti; California Breeders’ Champion Stakes (fillies), Dec. 27, Saucey Evening; Monrovia Handicap, Jibboom, Jan. 3; El Encino Stakes, Jan. 18, Life Is Sweet; San Marcos Stakes, Jan. 19, Artiste Royal; Sunshine Millions Sprint, Jan. 24, Georgie Boy; Palos Verdes Handicap, Jan. 25, Johnny Eves; Santa Monica Handicap, Jan. 31, Ventura; Robert B. Lewis Stakes, Feb. 7, Pioneerof the Nile; La Canada Stakes, Feb. 15, Life Is Sweet; San Vicente Stakes, Feb. 16, Evita Argentina; Buena Vista Handicap, Feb. 16, Jibboom; San Carlos Handicap, Feb. 21, Georgie Boy; Valentine Dancer Handicap, Feb. 21, Bel Air Sizzle (dead heat); and the Crystal Water Handicap, Feb. 28, Medzendeekron.

In other San Felipe news:

Three late scratches could reduce the starting field to four. “I’m probably not running,” trainer Mike Machowsky said of Kelly Leak. “The only reason I entered was if something happened to Baffert (Pioneerof the Nile).”

Said Richard Mandella of New Bay, who also is entered in Sunday’s Pasadena Stakes at one mile on turf: “We’re more intended for Sunday, but I’m going to watch and see what happens.”

Darrell Vienna, trainer of the speedy Feisty Suances, said his chances of running were “50-50.”

The field for the 72nd San Felipe, which goes as race No. 4 on a 10-race program: He’s Really Big, Aaron Gryder; Pioneerof the Nile, Gomez; Feisty Suances, David Flores; Shafted, Joel Rosario; Jeranimo, Brice Blanc; Kelly Leak, Victor Espinoza; and New Bay, Joe Talamo.

Pioneerof the Nile is highweight under 122 pounds. The others are assigned 115.

The field for the 72nd Santa Margarita: Forest Melody, Mike Smith, 113; Life Is Sweet, Gomez, 120; Bel Air Sizzle, Rafael Bejarano, 114; Modification, Tyler Baze, 113; Magical Fantasy, Alex Solis, 117; Santa Teresita, Joe Talamo, 117; and Model, Joel Rosario, 116.

On the heels of a first-ever $1 million winner, Santa Anita will once again offer its popular
$1 million St. Patrick’s Horseshoe Pitch contest this Saturday between races.

Saturday also is Dollar Day at Santa Anita. General admission is $1, as are programs, beer, hot dogs, popcorn and soft drinks.

Shown live last year on HRTV, the contest generated national news when John Placzankis, of Ranch Cucamonga, tossed a perfect ringer which set off instant bedlam both trackside and throughout the grandstand. In the immediate aftermath of last year’s $1 million score, Placzankis, when interviewed on HRTV, exclaimed, “The drinks are on me!!”

Fans are encouraged to enter the contest, free of charge, when they attend on Saturday. Entries must be submitted by fifth race post time, and a group of 20 prospective contestants will be posted throughout the facility. Further instructions and contest information will be available on designated television monitors.

FINISH LINES: Jorge Periban is enjoying a successful meet with nine wins from 59 starters through Wednesday, but as usual, the 49-year-old trainer is flying beneath the radar as far as widespread recognition is concerned. “I’ve got 40 horses overall, 23 at Santa Anita,” Periban said. “That’s the most I’ve had in Southern California, although I did have 130 when I trained in Mexico City. I’m really happy with how things are going now. It was a little hard in the beginning, but with time and patience, we’ve come a long way.” The likable Periban, who has been training since 1983, is nearing a career milestone. He needs only seven more victories to reach 500 . . . Santa Anita-based Papa Clem, second to Pioneerof the Nile in the Lewis Stakes, drew post position No. 8 in a field of 10 for Saturday’s Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds . . . Ernie Zampesi, who has ably assisted several head coaches in the National Football League, including Don Coryell and his famous “Air Coryell” offense with the San Diego Chargers, will be Santa Anita’s guest Thursday on the occasion of his 73rd birthday. The first race will be named in his honor. Current San Diego head coach Norv Turner also will be on hand for Zampesi’s celebration . . .Darrell Vienna reports that San Antonio Handicap winner Magnum, fifth in the Santa Anita Handicap, beaten 2 ½ lengths, is pointing to the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 4. Joel Rosario rides . . . Tomorrow marks another ‘Free Friday” at Santa Anita. General admission is free. Hot dogs, soda, beer, popcorn and coffee are $1. . . There were 176 players alive in ShowVivor II going into Thursday’s races . . . The popular Magna 5, consisting of five races in about one hour, has a carryover of $218,894.70 this Saturday. The minimum bet is $1. Saturday’s Magna 5 starts with Laurel’s ninth race at 1:45 p.m. and concludes with Santa Anita’s fifth race at 2:38 p.m. . . . Aaron Hesz of Handicappers’ Report and former Los Angeles Times handicapper Bob Mieszerski, now with Today’s Racing and, will be Jack Disney’s guests on Sunday’s Fans’ Forum, 11:15 a.m., in the East Paddock Gardens.