5 November 2006
Events don’t leave legacies, humans do. This week no amount of re-running of great Breeders’ Cup memories could match a visit to one of its greatest heroes. At 51, five years since he signed off by winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Tiznow, Chris McCarron is getting up before dawn to inspire the jockeys of the future.
He doesn’t need to do it. His 7,000 winners amassed a record $200 million in prize-money, his nine Breeders’ Cup wins (and 56 placings) logging over $17.6 million of the total. He has won every honour the sport can give for both performance and personality. But after a couple of slightly unfulfilling years as general manager and ambassador for Santa Anita’s owners, Magna Entertainment, he’s upped sticks and moved to Kentucky to found a jockeys’ school.
He was on a tractor when we found him, a tiny woolly-hatted Pied Piper with his Lilliputian team of just 11 would-be pilots balanced on the trailer up behind him. That afternoon’s lesson was searching for gopher holes in the horses’ field. He is in the barn at 7am on what are becoming freezing Kentucky mornings. McCarron always was a man for heart and soul.
“This is not my job,” he said, “it is my vocation. In 1988 when I won the Japan Cup on Pay The Butler, I stayed on for a jockeys’ series and when I saw their racing school I was sure we should have something like that at home. Two years later, lying in hospital with two broken arms and a broken leg I began thinking of plans as to how to make this project possible.”
With anyone else this sort of statement would sound romantic, but there has always been an infectious inspiration about the way McCarron talks, the uptilt of that small chipmunk face, the direct look of those wide, very pale blue eyes, and the lightning intelligence playing behind them. There may now be professorial spectacles above the nose and only few whispy grey hairs along the coot-like head, but there is little short of a crusade raging within.
“I think it is ironic,” he says with delicate sarcasm, “that despite all the millions we spend on the training and conditioning of the animals we ride, hardly anything is done to train and prepare the riders. All you need to get a licence is to have an outrider watch you gallop round a turn, the starter check you out of the gate, and then go before the stewards for a licence. This programme aims to set a different standard.” So he has started handling things himself from the very beginning – working with a dozen hand-picked kids, all college graduates just as McCarron was back in 1972, all committed but only half of them with any riding experience.
“We are giving them classes in financial controls, computers and media as well as the equine disciplines and racing technique. This is the first group on the first semester which started in September. They will do 18 months here and then six months with a trainer on the racetrack. I have told them to have no illusions, that not many will go all the way. But over the years the numbers and the awareness will build. We will have contributed something.”
There were times bumping around on the back of the trailer and later taking the horses out in the field that you thought the lucky dozen were having a time too good to be true. What price could you put on 18 months of one-to-one tuition from McCarron? How could any set of 18 to 20-year-olds ever become real jockeys just by rubbing shoulders with a legend every day?
“At the end of our first week,” their mentor said, “I showed them a video of some terrible falls and asked them to write me a 750-word essay on why they still wanted to continue on the course. Some of them had some difficulties completing this task so I then showed them the video of Tiznow’s back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classics ending with a close-up of the owners and all the crowd jumping up and down in delight. ‘That’s why we do it’. I told them, ‘to have the chance to do something so exciting and to bring such joy into other people’s lives’.”
Tiznow is the name of one of the five ‘Equicizer’ horses lined up in the classroom where we end the afternoon. In the centre is an inappropriately large ‘John Henry’, the most famous of all the horses McCarron rode. On it he perches and pumps out a finishing drive with two students in the saddle on either side in what must be the ultimate racing masterclass. If that doesn’t inspire a would-be jockey, nothing will.
About a hundred yards from the classroom, up the hill in adjoining paddocks, Cigar and John Henry cropped the autumn grass. At 16 Cigar still holds some of the awesome condition that saw him land the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park in 1995. At 31, John Henry is a little shaggy pony with not too many winters left on the clock.
They are two of the greatest names ever to resonate across the racing scene. But they are still just horses.
What McCarron has done, is doing and could do, gives you something else. It restores hope to the human condition.