TCA Honor Guest: Chris McCarron

Hall of Fame rider speaks out on the industry

Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron was the Honor Guest of the 85th annual testimonial dinner of the Thoroughbred Club of America Sept. 25. The well-attended event was held in Lexington at Keeneland, just across Rice Road from the TCA.

McCarron, who has lived in Lexington now for 12 years, is just the second jockey to be the honor guest, following the late Bill Shoemaker in 1982.

McCarron, however, is more than just a Hall of Fame rider. An advocate for both equine and human care, he founded the North American Riding Academy in Central Kentucky and is a member of The Jockey Club, American Horse Council, Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club, and serves on the board for the High Hope Steeplechase Association.

Early in the program he regaled the audience with the thrills of some of his biggest rides, sprinkling in plenty of humor.

“I’m very proud of the 28 years I spent in the saddle because I helped thousands of owners, thousands of trainers, and tens of thousands of gamblers win races,” he said. “I want to thank the agents who represented me over the 28 years despite the fact they were only 25% of the effort. I’d like to posthumously thank Bill Shoemaker for taking off John Henry in 1983. I want to thank Pat Day for taking off Alysheba; Jerry Bailey for taking off Go for Gin; and Victor Espinoza for taking off Tiznow. Thank you guys! You furthered my career. And I’d like to give a big shout out to Gary Stevens for my bone-head decision of taking off Silver Charm after riding him twice. … I blame my agent for that because I paid him a lot of money to make those crucial decisions and he let me down.”

McCarron also spoke of his early days growing up and riding in the Boston area, some of his lows as a rider through his many injuries, and why he decided to retire.

“You lose your heart eventually,” he said. “You get to the point where you don’t want to be bouncing along on the ground at 40 miles an hour. You get a little older; you don’t heal as fast. And it becomes more frightening.

“I’m actually a student of the industry,” he said. “I pay attention to just about everything that I can and the more I learned about how our horses are treated—by some—the more alarmed I became. Shock wave therapy. I first heard about it in 2000. I retired two years later. There is no doubt the education I gained about shock wave therapy hastened my decision to retire—without question.”

He spoke of his move to Kentucky to start NARA, which he decided to create after he spoke to a jockey school in Japan in 1988 and then turned to serious portion of the program.

“Now for the tough stuff: I’d like to share my opinion about the state of racing today. When I was a kid growing up in Boston there were 17 racetracks. Rockingham; Suffolk, Narragansett, Lincoln, Scarborough Downs in Maine and Green Mountain in Vermont and there was a huge fair circuit. Seventeen racetracks. There’s one left. They ran three days this year to keep their license.

“Forty years ago there were seven or eight Thoroughbred tracks in South Florida. We’ve got Gulfstream left. Calder’s there, but it’s just a track and a stable area; no more grandstand. I broke my maiden at Bowie on Feb. 9, 1974. It’s going to be houses soon. I won my last race at Hollywood Park, the new site for the L.A. Rams football stadium,” he said. “Back in the ‘70s, the average annual start for a Thoroughbred was 14. Today, career starts is approximately 11. There are a multitude of reasons for this serious decline in our game. Due to the fact that horses don’t run as often as they used to, our field size is greatly impacted and when that happens fans don’t want to bet on five- or six-horse fields. They’ll look elsewhere to enjoy their leisure money.

“I’ve been on the Thoroughbred Safety Committee of The Jockey Club since 2008. It was formed hastily in the wake of Eight Belles and all of the controversy of that terrible tragedy. About 10 years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association conducted an injury jockey study that revealed that there are 35 accidents a week involving jockeys. It could be anything from being stepped on in the paddock to getting flipped in the gate, to hitting the deck at 40 miles per hour. Worse yet, on average, every year two jockeys are killed and two more are paralyzed. We’ve had three riders paralyzed already this year.

“There are a multitude of reasons why this is happening, but the number one reason is discretion,” he said. “What to do with a horse that is infirm? What to do with a horse that needs rest instead of therapy.

“You’ve probably read recently in the Paulick Report about a trainer in Florida who is still able to ply his trade despite the fact he’s had 46 medication violations in his career; 23 alone in Florida.

The Racing Medication and Testing Consortium came up with NUMP a couple of years ago, the National Uniform Medication Program. I think only 20 states have adopted it. The racing commissions just don’t want to do it. There are 38 jurisdictions and half of them have adopted this program. The exchange of information is right there at our fingertips. The Jockey Club came up with a wonder program years ago called Encompass where the racing secretaries from track to track can share information such as vet’s lists. You can take a horse from California that is on the vet’s list and run in Arizona. They’ll take the entry. Same thing in New Mexico. This is ludicrous. In Oklahoma you can run a horse on Bute and Banamine the day they are in. It’s crazy. The status quo is not working folks.

“Uniform medication rules across the country is a must. I’ve been to Washington, D.C., six times walking the halls of Congress in support of HR 3084 which would give the government the right to assign USADA to be the governing body over all of the medication in this country. This bill is supported by Keeneland; it’s supported by the Breeders’ Cup; of course The Jockey Club is all over it. It’s supported by WHOA and supported by the Coalition for Horse Racing Integrity. The RMTC was formed in 2001…15 years ago…very little progress has been made despite all of their efforts in trying to come up with rules, regulations, penalties, you name it. They’re still making very little progress. I know most people in this room don’t want to let the Federal government get involved but we don’t have any other avenue. Every other avenue has been exhausted. Every other effort has just been pushed aside.

“I truly believe there is enough power in this room to cause some change to happen and for the good of the horse and for the good of the participants, and the integrity of the game, something has got to give,” he concluded.