Charles Dickens would have loved Chris McCarron. So would Walt Disney.
Eyes as blue as Galway Bay, framed by ringlets of flame-red hair, he looked like a cross between Oliver Twist and Bambi. Racing's Little Boy Blue. It didn't seem as if he could ever be a match for the 1,200-pound willful brutes they'd load him on in the starting gates around New England, where he began his career.
The contest between horse and rider is the most uneven since the Christians and the lions. It makes Notre Dame vs. Harvard look like a toss-up. The horse has a 1,000-pound pull in the weights, his instinct would be to bite or kick that creature on his back if he could and the last thing in the world he wants to do is run in a straight line.
If he could, he'd head straight for the barn. He'll sulk, jump shadows, lug in, lug out, prop. All he really wants to do is eat. He'll never go between horses or on the rail. He'll run too fast or too slow if left on his own, he's a bundle of nerves from inbreeding and a blowing hot dog wrapper can turn him into a hysterical mass of quivering horseflesh apt to do anything. Some horses you have to wrap a bag around their heads to get them to run at all.
The well-known sports surgeon, Dr. Robert Kerlan, no less, once said that jockeys, pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch, had to be the greatest athletes in the field of sports given the one-sidedness of the competition. They have less body fat than timber wolves and come as tightly wrapped. But their only advantage against a half-ton of horseflesh is their hands--and their brains.
That was enough for Chris McCarron, who was as good as anybody who ever tied himself on one of these runaway causes. Like Sam Snead, he modeled his swing after an older brother and, like Snead, he got better at it than that brother. McCarron, Chris, fit his style to the horse rather than vice versa.
You measure a rider not only by how many races he wins, but what kind. Some riders get horses to run the same way thunderstorms do--out of sheer terror. Others coax performance out of them. Anyone can ride Man o' War. Warra Nymph is another matter.
McCarron was as at home on horseback as Geronimo. He was only 18 years old when he won his first race, and he went on to win a staggering 546 races his first year in the saddle, a record.
But, in the pecking order of racing, young riders--even precocious ones--have to wait their turn at the classic horses. Chris won races--he led the country in 1974, '75 and '80. He won money--he led in earnings in 1980, '81 and '84.
But in the Kentucky Derby, he got on 40- and 50-to-1 shots like Esop's Foibles and Cojak. When he finally got on a middling good horse--Desert Wine in 1983, Bold Arrangement in 1986--he finished second. He rode John Henry in his Horse of the Year campaign in '84 but disclaims credit. "Easiest horse to ride I was ever on--all you had to do was not fall off. He was like a smart old fighter, an Archie Moore who knew what to do to win and did it."
But what sets Chris McCarron apart is an extraordinary ability to look a fact, even an unpleasant one, in the face.
Usually, when a rider comes back after a disappointing race, he is able to find someone or something to blame--the horse didn't care for the track, the horse didn't run his race, the horse was bothered by the crowd, the horse next to him, the start, his post position, sun spots. "He didn't fire up, when I asked him to run, he didn't have it," is a favorite. English translation: the horse let you down.
When Chris McCarron lost the Belmont on Alysheba last June, the letdown had to be cosmic. It would have made him instant history. Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown and only 10 riders. Great jockeys have never won it--Bill Shoemaker, Laverne Fator, Lafit Pincay, Angel Cordero, Sonny Workman.
All he had to do was beat a field he had beaten twice--at Kentucky and at Maryland.
He ran a shocking 14 lengths behind a horse he led home twice. He finished a puffy fourth in a nine-horse field. He took a lot of money with him. He went off at 4-5. The winner paid 8-1.
If ever there was a motive to go find someone to blame, Chris McCarron had it.
He found someone to blame--Chris McCarron.
"I blew it. I called a bad game out there, you might say. I used bad judgment, I tried to spot the horse at the quarter-pole between Gone West and Cryptoclearance and I stopped him pretty good. Regardless, I rode him poorly. The fact is, I didn't ride a smart race, I didn't let him run. The first time I tried to ease him off the pace, he spit out the bit and I had difficulty getting control.
"You know how a John Elway can have a great career and then in one Super Bowl game, he throws interceptions? That's what I did. I don't use the word 'choke' because that's not what it is. You just make mistakes and get thrown out of your rhythm and can't get it back."