Chris McCarron Goes Out on Top

Chris McCarron Goes Out on Top
Photo: Benoit Associates
Daughter Erin (left) reads a poem as the rest of the McCarron family (wife Judy and daughters Kristin and Stephanie) look on.
This story appearde in the June 29 issue of The Blood-Horse
The hard work was over. Now, with the 128th Kentucky Derby (gr. I) waiting just around the corner, it was a matter of keeping the colt calm and focused. Came Home's breeze the day before had been perfect, as smooth as silk, and at the crack of dawn the next day, trainer Paco Gonzalez had him tacked up and ready to stretch his legs. As the dark bay made his way out to the track, amid the morning buzz of the Derby backstretch, there was no mistaking the legend on his back. The yellow flak jacket was a dead giveaway.

"The fact that he took Came Home out the day after his work for a jog in Kentucky blew my mind," recalled owner, breeder, and loyal Chris McCarron admirer Trudy McCaffery. "You know, anybody could have got on him, but no--there was Chris, six o'clock in the morning. I mean, the horse was just going to go for a little jog and there he was. But this is what Chris is. These are the things that Chris does that make him such a special person."

And these are the things the game will deeply miss following McCarron's retirement from racing the afternoon of June 23. The news was positively shocking when the 47-year-old McCarron announced his decision just eight days earlier, but nobody, from fan to family, could blame him. The reason was simple. The reason was legitimate. Chris McCarron had finally grown tired.

"We're all gonna have to step down, you know," said friend and fellow jockey Eddie Delahoussaye. "Laffit will one day. Shoe done it; Longden, everybody. Arcaro done it. It's part of life. You can't ride forever. But the thing is, you still wanna leave with your head up in the air and have people respect you, and that's one thing Chris McCarron will have--people that respect him. And that's worth more than him being leading rider or in the Hall of Fame or anything."

"No one's ever even been close to his success level in the history of the game," remarked Dr. Wayne Gertmenian, president of the Jockeys' Guild. "And the other thing that's interesting is that except for Eddie Arcaro, I don't think anybody's ever retired at the top before. He's still at the top of the game."

Indeed. When McCarron finally walked away, he had won 7,141 races. Only five other riders can lay claim to having won more. And no jockey in history has ever earned more purse money than McCarron, his career mounts amassing more than $264 million.

But there was so much more to McCarron than his gift between the rails. He is a guy who punched the clock day in and day out, constantly honing his skill and riding hard for the $2 bettor. To his fellow jockeys, he was both role model and fierce competitor. His integrity, compassion, horseman ship, and dedication to the industry have long been venerated, hallmarks of a career that will go down as one of the game's all-time finest. For nearly three decades, no one has epitomized the sport quite like Chris McCarron.

Interestingly, the nine McCarron children were never even exposed to horses in their Boston youth, so there was no real reason to think Christopher John would ever pursue a life in racing. The fact was, young Chris was a hockey nut. Pictures of the great Bobby Orr bedecked his bedroom. It wasn't until high school, in fact, when older brother Gregg began riding competitively, that the sport caught McCarron's eye. He followed his brother's career closely, intrigued by the combination of fast horses and big money. His dreams of becoming a hockey star long gone, McCarron eventually opted to follow in Gregg's footsteps.

After cutting his teeth under the auspices of trainer Odie Clelland, McCarron was hoisted aboard his very first mount, a gelding named Most Active, on Jan. 24, 1974. They promptly finished last--a bad last. By year's end, however, Chris McCarron was a household name. When he won his 516th race that year, at the expense of his brother, Gregg, who finished second by a nose, he set a world record for winners in one year. The 546 winners he had at the year's end were more than enough to earn the 19-year-old an Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice jockey.

So dominant on the Maryland circuit was McCarron, in fact, that the temptation to take a crack at the big leagues soon became inescapable. The year was 1978. McCarron headed to California.

Over the next quarter-century, the achievements gradually piled high. A second Eclipse in 1980. A slew of big-time wins on John Henry. Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) victories with Alysheba. The Hall of Fame in 1989. Another Derby with Go for Gin, another Preakness with Pine Bluff. Nine Breeders' Cup victories, two Belmonts (gr. I), countless riding titles throughout Southern California and an endless stream of stakes winners.

And with his success came unparalleled admiration. Gertmenian remembers standing in a Belmont shedrow with trainer Allen Jerkens last fall. Eventually, McCarron wandered past, and Jerkens unexpectedly broke the conversation with a single number: "Ten."

A bit baffled, Gertmenian asked logically. "Ten what?"

"Ten, ten lengths," came the reply. "There are jockeys out there who can get you five," Jerkens said.

"But he's the only jockey that ever lived that could get you 10 extra lengths."

Continued

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