With 7,141 wins, and more than $264 million in purses, retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron knows something about the craft of riding horses. Speaking as a guest of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Manager's Club Tuesday, McCarron said it was time to pass this knowledge on.
Just off a recent stint as the general manager of Santa Anita Park, McCarron told the group he moved his family to Lexington, Ky. with the sole purpose of founding a school devoted to the education of the professional jockey.
"It boggles the mind when you consider the expense of raising these horses," said McCarron, "from breeding them, up to the time they are born, all the way until they reach a starting gate. And then, many times, we entrust that investment to someone who is unqualified."
McCarron's plans call for the North American Racing Academy to open at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington as early as February. McCarron said the initial business model called for getting that facility, filling it with horses, developing a curriculum, and then recruiting 40-50 applicants to fill the 10 slated openings he envisions enrolling in the first academic year.
McCarron, who stands sixth all time in the win category among jockeys, and whose last mount, Came Home
, won the 2002 Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) at Hollywood Park, said the idea came to him in 1990 while he was in a California hospital rehabilitating four broken limbs.
"I thought, 'what am I going to do next--train horses?' and it was there that I began developing a business plan to establish a jockey school," he said.
McCarron said he is closely allied with a variety industry leaders, and has an interim board of directors that includes Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief, Keeneland president Nick Nicholson, and former jockeys Laffit Pincay, Eddie Delahoussaye, and Steve Cauthen, among others.
"One of the things I'm most pleased about is that, so far, everyone we asked to come on the board accepted--it's a who's who of racing," said McCarron.
"And we're going to do more than teach kids to ride," said the man who piloted legends John Henry, Alysheba, and Tiznow. "Our program will teach them about nutrition and fitness, communication with the media, the betting public, and all the other things they'll need to know to be successful."
McCarron said a brief stay in Japan in 1988 where he was a guest speaker at a national jockey program--and a similar, recent fact-finding trip to Newmarket, England--helped shape his vision of what the United States riding community needs and what the school should provide.
"It was a fascinating trip," McCarron said of his visit to England. "I learned a lot that will be beneficial to our students. Practically every country involved in horse racing requires some licensing. We have the best racing, the best horses, and the best farms, yet we have no school."
In earlier published statements, McCarron said he planned to lobby various racing commissions and other organizations to institute minimum requirements and standards for jockeys.
McCarron said the academy is coordinating with leaders of the Kentucky community college system on the possibility of accreditation, looking for both industry and government funding to offset the estimated $350,000 in annual operating costs.
The ex-rider said he is in the process raising money for the first year--a figure he believes will reach $500,000. The program will be as long as 18 months and cost a prospective student $15,000 to be paid in $5,000 amounts for the three, six-month sessions.
McCarron said he hoped a student loan process similar to the traditional college loan system could be eventually put in place.
McCarron, a Boston-area native, estimates that two-thirds of the education would involve hands-on horsemanship training, while roughly one-third would involve class study. Among the curricula to be taught is the fitness of the horse for duty and common, attendant injuries.
McCarron said the academy is teaming with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to fill the barns with former racehorses.
"It's a perfect fit," said McCarron, who estimated the need for 25 horses and ponies. "We need a lot of horses, and this will be a big feather in our cap."
McCarron said the qualifications necessary to attend the school would be strict--including no one over 114 pounds; no one over 5' 7" in height; no one with less than 5% body fat; and no one under the age of 18 who doesn't have a G.E.D. or high school diploma.
'We don't want to encourage people to drop out of school," he said.
McCarron recounted receiving numerous letters from fans while he was Santa Anita's general manager wondering why there was no place for someone to learn the trade. McCarron also said that there were fewer trainers and established jockeys willing to teach young riders the ropes as it was in his day.
"Today a jockey is lucky to get a mentor," he said. "They have to be likeable to older jockeys, but I've always found that that stops fast when a young rider starts showing talent and winning races.
"Before, the educational process was just thrust on a jockey, before they were ready. We're going to try to right that," he said.