Riding Out

By Wayne Sweezey
The boiling heat wave had recently passed through upstate New York and on this day temperatures were cooler and more tolerable. Saratoga's paddock was bright and colorful and crowded; a grade I was about to be run.

We were there to cheer for a filly whose half-brother we had purchased in November as a weanling to be sold as a yearling in September. Our association with the filly was only through her family's pedigree; however, the outcome could pay dividends for the future sale of our pinhook.

We knew the filly was in a bit tough, though her performance did not reflect her ability in her previous start. This afternoon, her connections were confident she'd be very competitive.

The race unfolded beautifully. Down the backstretch, the jock had her in perfect position. She was wide turning for home, yet she was game and full of run. The filly gave it her all. The cavalry charge neared the wire, and although it became evident our filly was not going to be first, it looked as if second place was achievable, and without a doubt, third was to be ours. At the very moment our jockey should have been finishing a grade I race with everything he had, he stopped riding and stood up in the irons, five yards from the wire! Our filly finished fourth by a nose.

In this case, our jockey was an experienced professional and should have known better. Was he suffering from a lack of concentration or complacency? Whatever the reason, we were denied a grade I update for our September yearling. Does it make a difference? You bet!

At the conclusion of the race, Saratoga no longer seemed any cooler. As my shirt darkened blue with sweat, I brewed over our misfortune. Needing badly to commiserate, I called home, and my wife Cathy listened quietly as I railed about the ride. Later that afternoon, while visiting Chris and Judy McCarron, Cathy relayed the day's happenings.

Chris McCarron has recently established the North American Racing Academy. After hearing about our day in Saratoga, Chris saw an opportunity to take a negative experience, find the positive, and in turn asked if I would share my experience with his students and further explain how far-reaching the results of a race can be.

In the days following Chris' invitation, I considered the value of a school for young riders. When I calculated the investment made by an owner to reach the saddling enclosure, it doesn't figure that we allow an inexperienced rider, with no formal racing education, to pilot our investment.

As Chris has explained to me, in today's jockey colonies, young riders learn their skills empirically. Some elder jockeys will take a young rider under their wing and share with them some of the basics. Once that young gun starts winning, it no longer makes sense for the veteran to continue sharing trade secrets with his competitor. Educating a green rider solely through the experiences of live racing not only places our horses at risk, but the jockeys as well.

Chris describes the future of his NARA project with the same genuine enthusiasm he displayed throughout his career. It is our industry's great fortune to have a Hall of Fame jockey, whose life epitomizes riding professionalism, willing to undertake such an auspicious project.

We discussed the trickle-down effect of jockeys' performances, and through the school, Chris assured me aspiring jockeys will not only be taught many facets of our business, they will also learn to admire and protect the source of their income, the horse. The NARA will enlighten young riders to the great effort put forth by breeders in their pursuit of a superior racehorse. Aspiring riders will learn about gestation, the foaling, the care given to the fledgling offspring, the yearling breaking process, and finally about the racetrack. They will be taught something about pedigrees and in turn the definition of a Thoroughbred's "residual value." Young riders will learn about the dedication of farm managers, grooms, foaling men, blacksmiths, et al, that ensure young horses reach the races. And ultimately, they will be taught to appreciate and respect the investment made by owners. The North American Racing Academy will have a positive impace on all of us.

This is a game of competition. We can be assured Chris McCarron will teach his pupils the importance of riding hard...to the very end!