For Merv Griffin, 80, victory in the Kentucky Derby would be a crowning moment in a full life that has included 23 years as the host of an eponymous daily television show and the subsequent construction of a business and entertainment empire worth more than $500 million.
For jockey Garrett Gomez, 33, victory in the Derby would be a crowning moment in a troubled life that has included addictions to alcohol and cocaine that nearly cost him his family and stripped him of the athletic gifts he performs on the back of a racehorse.
These two men with so little in common posed together in the winner's circle last Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park after Gomez rode Griffin's late-running, 2-year-old chestnut colt, Stevie Wonderboy, to victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Stevie Wonderboy had also won the Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 7 and probably will be voted champion 2-year-old colt. He will definitely be the next horse to challenge the Juvenile jinx: None of the previous 21 winners of the Juvenile (or the Juvenile Fillies) have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby.
Griffin purchased Stevie Wonderboy for $100,000 last March in Florida. "We thought we'd have to pay a lot more," says Griffin's farm manager, Don Rhodes. With a nod to sire Stephen Got Even, Griffin named his horse after the singer who, at age 17, appeared on his variety show.
Griffin has been a racing fan since he was a teenager growing up near San Francisco and his father twice took him to watch Seabiscuit run, though he says he didn't attend his first Kentucky Derby until the early '90s. "After I got rich," he says. That was after he created and sold Jeopardy (and its ubiquitous theme song) and Wheel of Fortune and plunged into real estate. He says he has bought roughly 50 horses in his life, most in the low $100,000 range. He has never had a Kentucky Derby starter, although Skipaslew won two minor preps before falling off the Derby trail in April 2004.
For three consecutive years the Derby has been charmed by various racing outsiders and long shots such as Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and Giacomo. Griffin would do likewise. He offered a sample last Saturday, walking into a press conference, spreading his arms and saying, in a voice straight from the '70s: "Welcome to the Merv Griffin Show."
Gomez was a solid rider through much of the '90s, winning the Arkansas Derby in 1994 and '95, running third in the '94 Preakness on Concern, and winning a riding title at Hollywood Park in 1998. "But I had problems with alcohol my whole life," he says. "In 2001 and 2002 I got into it a little deeper and I got into some drugs." In the late fall of '02 Gomez says he served 40 days in jail for cocaine possession. "My wife had no husband; my kids had no father," says Gomez, who has two children with his wife, Pam, and two others from a previous marriage.
He entered a rehab program on Oct. 29, 2003, and began riding again 13 months ago. On Saturday he won not only the Juvenile, but also the Mile on Artie Schiller, both victories coming on the two-year anniversary of his sobriety. After the second, he raised his left hand to the sky. "To God," he said. "I was so happy and [was] asking him, 'What more can you give me?'"
Just a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May.
• Read more from Tim Layden at SI.com.
Coupled with Lost in the Fog's defeat in the six-furlong Sprint, the victory by Saint Liam (above, right) in the Breeders' Cup Classic makes him the favorite for Horse of the Year. However, only two of the last six Classic winners went on to win Horse of the Year.
Beat out Smarty Jones
Four Grade I wins
Seven graded stakes wins
Preakness, Belmont winner
Derby, Preakness winner
BILL FRAKES (3)
Gomez, aboard Stevie Wonderboy (inset), celebrated the anniversary of his sobriety with a win.