The man known as “El perfecto” was the most colorful and exciting jockey to ever perform on Canadian racetracks. His exceptional career came to a tragic end at Woodbine in 1980 during the running of the Canadian Oaks when he suffered fatal injuries in a three-horse spill and died later in hospital.
Avelino Gomez, North America’s leading jockey in 1966 when he won 318 races, and six-time Canadian champion, liked it best when he was clowning – reacting to the approval or boos from the fans. He was tempestuous, controversial and often unrepentant. Winning was the only thing that mattered to him, whether it was playing gin rummy in the track kitchen, golfing or piloting a $2,500 claimer. In his triumphant season of 1966 he established a record that no jockey had achieved since 1895 -the year the Daily Racing Form began publishing charts and statistics. During an era when riders were accepting up to 2,000 mounts a season, Gomez needed only 996 to capture the title. His win percentage of 32% has never been bettered. In 1982 Gomez’s lifetime achievements earned him induction into the National Museum of Horse Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga, N.Y.
The Cuban-born jockey with 4,081 career wins was unique. Two anecdotes perhaps best illustrate Gomez. In the early 1960’s he was involved in a spill at Blue Bonnets in Montreal. One of the riders involved in the spill was Al Coy, whose clashes off and on the track with Gomez often made headlines. Gomez didn’t move a muscle as he lay on the track, apparently badly injured. Coy rushed back to see if he could aid his rival. But Gomez, who felt that Coy perhaps caused the spill, was playing possum as he jumped up and slugged Coy. In 1960 at Greenwood, Gomez was leading in the stretch when he fell off his mount. Rolling out of the path of the rest of the horses, he then jumped up and waved. He was greeted with applause. Then someone booed and soon there was a resounding chorus of boos from the stands. “Maybe I keel myself for an encore,” he said.
On another occasion, in the 1960 Queen’s Plate when Gomez rode the huge favorite Victoria Park, he stood high in the irons while cruising down the stretch, peering behind him to see if there was any opposition, and daring a crank, who had telephoned the police and track officials that he intended to shoot Gomez out of the saddle on the clubhouse turn. Gomez purposely positioned his horse in a pocket of horses at the turn. “I get in a little pocket of horses so that man can’t shoot me,” said Gomez afterwards.
The threat of death was discussed shortly before the running of the Oaks between Gomez and his brother, Mickey Gomez, who’d acted as his long-time agent. Mickey asked him: “Why do you continue to do this? What do you need it for? My brother said to me, ‘if I’m going to die, this is the best way.’ I couldn’t argue with him. He loved to ride. He was a determined person who wanted nothing else but to win.”
The most eloquent tribute to Gomez came from owner Conn Smythe, who often feuded with him, claiming that he once “stole” a Queen’s Plate win from him when he grabbed the saddle cloth of Bye and Near in 1966. Both men admired each other. “Gomez was a soldier. If you were in a war, in the army, navy or air force, you’ll know what I’m saying. He never asked for an inch and he never backed-up from anybody or anything.” Because of increasing weight and age, Gomez tried training horses in 1971, but returned to the saddle the following year. He took up training again in 1974 before deciding in 1976 that riding was his destiny. “As a rider, I’m the chief!” he stated emphatically.
A memorial to him, a statue in a characteristic Gomez pose- left hand on hip, right arm raised high offering a victory salute – was erected at Woodbine in 1984.Riders are reminded of “El Perfecto” each day as they pass by the memorial on their way from the paddock to the racetrack. To honor his memory the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award was inaugurated in 1984. Each year, prior to the running of the Canadian Oaks, a replica of the statue is awarded to a jockey who has made a significant contribution to the sport. The first winner was Ron Turcotte.