Late last night, in a $14,000 claiming race at the Meadowlands, Red Oak Stable’s Missed The Prom sailed to an eight-length win under a jockey who had not won a race since 1998. As the Greg Sacco trainee was led into the winner's circle, his rider couldn’t help breathing a sigh of relief. It had taken nine years to reach this place, and the sweetness of the moment was overwhelming. Herb McCauley’s comeback was complete.
Here was a man who had swung into the saddle on more than 20,000 starters, returning as the jubilant victor 3,049 times. His list of accomplishments included almost every grade I stakes race imaginable – the Kentucky Oaks, the Travers, the Haskell Invitational, the Super Derby, the Pennsylvania Derby, the Man O’ War, the Sword Dancer – but through a freak accident at Monmouth Park in June of 1998 when he shattered his left leg, he was suddenly relegated to life on the sidelines.
“I was very tormented; the wheels just fell off my life, and I fell apart,” McCauley says. “I was extremely depressed. I picked up the bottle pretty good; I started doing things a lot of people in this world would have done if they were in my situation.”
Over the years, McCauley went through four surgeries and extensive rehabilitation before he was even back on his feet. He served as an agent for jockeys Kyle Kaenel and Eddie King Jr., attempting to find a new career while staying close to the sport he loved. But inside, the drive to race and win remained. Unable to ride, he was miserable.
Then one day this March, with nothing better to do, McCauley drove down to the beach and started walking. He covered miles of shoreline, reflecting on life, thinking of everything that had happened since the accident.
“I was thinking about how I lost everything important – my family, a relationship I was in, my money, my identity, everything,” he says. “I lost sight of who Herbie really was. When I was walking the beach I thought to myself, 'Why did you have all this happiness before?' And it was because I was doing what I loved: riding races.”
It takes a long time to go over nine years, so the next day, McCauley walked again. Before he knew it he was walking every day. His mind – and body – began to heal. He decided to make a comeback.
So McCauley set up a training program with Mike Greenblatt, a physical trainer who had worked with the jockey’s nephew, a high school quarterback. Greenblatt’s clients extended to athletes of Olympic caliber, and he specialized in rehabilitation. They set up a gym in McCauley’s living room – weights, stationary bike, mats, the works. June 20, they started training. Six weeks later, McCauley was getting on horses for trainer Alan Goldberg at Colt’s Neck Stable, back in the saddle after nearly a decade of absence. It felt like coming home.
“It was so natural, like I never left,” McCauley said. “It was like being in a coma and waking up and finding out that the whole world is sitting in front of you again.”
He galloped every morning – 10, 20, 100 head. He stepped up his exercise regimen, cranking through the pushups and situps, setting his sights on a Labor Day weekend return. It was a goal he met with gratifying precision.
“For some reason, I got this gift back,” he says. “It’s the space in my life where I’m completely on my own, in my own world, and the rest of the world kind of fades out. It’s where I’m at peace of mind and the horses pay attention to me and I pay attention to them; it’s the competitiveness and the passion, and the place I’m at is extremely comfortable. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Sept. 1 at the Meadowlands, around 10:20 p.m., McCauley slipped into the red and black silks of Joseph Rodi and Monmouth Stud. He snapped black rubberbands around his narrow wrists, clipped a black number patch to his upper arm, and picked up his leather whip. He was ready to ride.
As Mike Greenblatt watched from the stands, the unfolding events reminded him of scenes from the movie "Rocky." When McCauley walked into the paddock, it was as if everyone at the track had been waiting for him to arrive. Fans crowded around the outside fence and flashbulbs popped in the evening light. The jockey rode out onto the old dirt oval, and the hardened and wizened and cynical old bettors gathered near the rail to chant, “Hollywood! Hollywood! Hollywood!”
The race itself was uneventful. McCauley’s mount, Calabria Bella, raced off the pace inside and offered no response when the jockey sent her after the frontrunners. She finished fifth. Still, McCauley was ecstatic as he galloped back to dismount near the winner's circle. His brilliant smile could have lit up the tote board.
“I had thrills going through me,” he says. “It made me so happy. This is something I love to do. Not too many people in the world are able to really do what they love, you know. Let me tell you, I don’t have many wrinkles on my face, but I might be putting some on, I’m smiling so much these days.”
The question, however, remains: How long will McCauley be able to ride? At an age when most of his colleagues are beginning to consider retirement, he forces himself to remain realistic about his situation.
“Hey, I watch those guys my age and I would have been in the same situation as them if I hadn’t gone down,” he says. “I was 41 then and I planned to ride until I was 50, but I lost nine years of my life. I’m not gonna ride until I’m 60 now, but when I do go out I want to go out on my own terms.”
So the plan is to take a sensible approach to the comeback, to set an attainable goal. In doing so, McCauley will maintain a sliver of control over his otherwise unpredictable occupation. If all goes well, he’ll pursue race riding for the next five years. Then he’ll assess the situation.
“If I get five good years in, I’ll be happy. I’ll be lucky,” he says. “I’m headed in the right direction.”
For now, that direction leads to the paddock at Monmouth Park. There, under a blanket of florescent lights, Herb McCauley walks toward his mount with a spring in every step. He sails effortlessly into the saddle and tucks his shining boots into the featherweight irons. In the gate, he pulls down the plastic goggles and grasps a fistful of mane. The doors open and the horses break and he bounces up into a tightly crouched position. He hears the pounding hooves, feels the power beneath him, thrills at his own freedom as they hurtle down the track.
For now, win or lose, Herb McCauley is riding again – and his world is as it should be.