LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Chris McCarron won his first Triple Crown race, the 1986 Belmont Stakes, because Laffit Pincay bypassed the winner, Danzig Connection, to ride Taylors Special.
McCarron won his second Triple Crown race, Saturday's Kentucky Derby, after Pat Day decided to ride Demons Begone and McCarron, a red-haired 32-year-old, was given the mount on Alysheba.
But more importantly, McCarron won Saturday's Derby because of the courage and persistence he has shown since he broke his left leg last fall in a five-horse spill at Santa Anita.
McCarron came out of the accident with a steel rod in his upper leg, but the consequences for other principals were even more severe. One of the horses was destroyed, and Terry Lipham's riding career was ended because of his injuries.
Instead of riding in the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita in November, McCarron, on crutches, served as a commentator for the NBC telecast, "trying not to get too upset as all of my good horses were flying by."
McCarron was out for five months, coming back to ride at Santa Anita in mid-March. That's a time when many horses with Kentucky Derby potential are spoken for, but because Day was connected to Demons Begone as well as a few other top 3-year-olds, trainer Jack Van Berg needed a rider for Alysheba.
On Saturday, Alysheba was refusing to do things a Kentucky Derby candidate must do. "But maybe he'll wake up some morning and be the good horse he's expected to be," Day said after the last race he rode him, the San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita on March 22.
McCarron took over in the Blue Grass, finishing first but being moved back to third as Alysheba came out and jarred Leo Castelli in mid-stretch.
On Saturday, when he and Alysheba were almost sent sprawling in the Churchill Downs stretch, McCarron had to have memories of that dark day at Santa Anita, when only two horses finished the race.
His recovery wasn't as simple as just letting time heal the leg. For one thing, McCarron was not used to being on the ground; his longest injury-caused absence in 13 years of riding had been six weeks.
After 2 1/2 months, McCarron began swimming, and exercising on a stationary bicycle.
"But there's nothing that can prepare you for riding horses except riding horses," he said at the time.
A couple of months later, he went to Santa Anita, a place he had deliberately avoided, just to jog on trainer Chuck Marikian's pony.
"The horse ducked to the right, and I went to the left," McCarron said. "I didn't have the strength to come back yet. What I had then was just a grand illusion."
But McCarron did come back, and now he has won a race that escaped him six times before. The Derby has been more elusive than just that. One year, he was scheduled to ride Hostage, one of the favorites, but the horse broke down under him during a Churchill Downs workout only days before the race.
"I'm exhilarated," McCarron said Saturday, after a Derby that was more a study in survival than a horse race.
Bet Twice, having taken the lead at the top of the stretch, twice tried to ambush Alysheba.
"I hit my horse left-handed," said Craig Perret, Bet Twice's jockey, "and he kind of came out a little bit. But I don't think that is when Alysheba got to me, I think it was before that.
"I straightened my horse up, and he went on and ran. If he came out and bumped, I couldn't tell at that point. I was just concentrating on my horse. He wanted to look at the crowd on the inside, and I wanted to keep his mind on running."
McCarron was concentrating on staying in the saddle.
"My horse was just about to his knees," the jockey said. "For the life of me, I can't figure how he stayed up.
"He had been a little bit of a clown, the way he ran in the Blue Grass, but he's a good athlete. But he's not a horse who cheats on you. He couldn't have been a cheater, the way he racked up all those paychecks in those other races."
McCarron, after watching head-on replays of the Blue Grass stretch run, agreed that the stewards had to take Alysheba's number down.
"But I'll tell you," McCarron said, "I don't know if Leo Castelli could have gotten by us even if we hadn't made contact. From 40 yards before the wire until 40 yards past it, he increased our lead from a head to three-quarters of a length."
In the Derby, McCarron said that although Alysheba might have been "leaning in a little bit in the stretch, it was Bet Twice's fault."
It was a courageous effort by the winner. And there has been just as much courage shown by the rider, from the time he was able to get back on horses about two months ago.