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He Wants Free Rein

His passion gone, McCarron says he has no second thoughts about retiring

June 16, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE

At Saturday's midday news conference, called to confirm that Chris McCarron would indeed be riding the last race of an Olympian career a week from today at Hollywood Park, McCarron's eyes welled up as he struggled to finish each sentence. Choking up is not something endemic to McCarron, especially when he's on the back of an 1,100-pound thoroughbred in the final strides of a million-dollar race.

"I guess I need a blindfold," McCarron was saying at Hollywood Park, where a makeshift interview area was set up in a tunnel just off the jockeys' quarters. "Because every time I look toward the back, I see Judy standing there, and that gets to me."

Judy McCarron, the mother of their three daughters, was at Churchill Downs last month for her husband's 18th ride in a Kentucky Derby. Instead of winning a third Derby, McCarron finished sixth with Came Home, the horse he had ridden to a Santa Anita Derby victory just a month before. The next day, the McCarrons were going in different directions, Judy to Lexington, Ky., where as a technical consultant she was to inspect locations for a movie on the life of Seabiscuit, and Chris to Hollywood Park, where he was scheduled to ride in three races.

Before heading for the Louisville airport, McCarron stopped by Came Home's barn at Churchill Downs to make sure the colt had come out of the Derby unscathed. But then, instead of catching his plane, McCarron turned back and rejoined his wife at the hotel.

"I'm going to say something that might still get me in trouble," McCarron said, finishing the story. "Maybe there's a statute of limitations to this. But I called the stewards at Hollywood Park and told them I couldn't make it."

Pete Pedersen, one of those three stewards, can't recall the excuse McCarron gave them.

"He probably just told us the truth," Pedersen said. "We could fine a rider for not having a good excuse, but with Chris you have to allow some leeway. Over many years, his show-up record is pretty good."

McCarron might not have been able to explain fully why he did what he did, but part of it was that traveling about 2,000 miles to honor a few mounts was suddenly not the most important thing in his life. Later that Sunday, at Keeneland, where the 1938 Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race will be re-created for the film, McCarron watched on television as Eddie Delahoussaye, his replacement at Hollywood in the Inglewood Handicap, rode Seinne to a third-place finish.

"I'm ashamed to admit this," said McCarron, sobbing a little, "but I had no guilty feelings about not being there. Something was wrong, because I should have felt guilty. But there was no longer a big bright flame burning. It was down to a little flicker. I could feel that that big flame had been extinguished."

More than a month later, this confused feeling hadn't gone away and McCarron decided it was time to act. He discussed a possible retirement with his wife and Gregg McCarron, his older brother, who retired from riding years ago. Then on Wednesday night, he invited himself over to the home of Scott McClellan, his agent since 1981. At halftime of the Laker-Net game, McCarron and McClellan walked into the agent's backyard and McCarron told him that it was over.

The agent-jockey relationship starts with a handshake and many times ends almost as quickly. The really long partnerships, like the ones between Harry Silbert and Bill Shoemaker and between Vic Gilardi and Jorge Velasquez, can be counted on a single hand. McCarron, who began riding in 1974, en route to 7,137 wins and $264 million in purses, had four agents before McClellan. The last was Vince DeGregory, one of the best but for McCarron too much of a high-pressure operative. After a couple of years, he turned to McClellan, who in the beginning promised that "you'll never need anybody but me."

Recalling his years with McCarron, McClellan said Saturday that there was never a harsh word.

"The only thing I can remember is that Chris didn't show up one time to work a horse," McClellan said. "One time out of all those years, mind you. But the horse's owners were there, and I needed to call Chris for an explanation. 'Hey, Scotty,' he said. 'What can I tell you? I just forgot.' "

Johnny Longden, another Hall of Fame jockey, was 61, 14 years older than McCarron, when he told a banquet audience that he was quitting, won the 1966 San Juan Capistrano Handicap with George Royal two days later and never returned. Gary Stevens, who's also in the Hall of Fame, retired on opening day at Santa Anita in 1999 but couldn't stay away. McCarron said Saturday that he won't have second thoughts about quitting. For him, the flame cannot be rekindled.

He's not likely to turn to training, either. "That would be like going from the frying pan into the fire," he said. "The way the game is today, it's too tough of a go."

Instead, as early as next month in Alaska, he's going to try some things he's not particularly good at, like fishing for trout.

"Right now, I'm terrible at it," he said. "There's a place in Azusa where you put dough on the end of a hook attached to a bamboo stick, and pay by the weight for what you catch. You could reach down and grab the fish. But I can't hook even one."

Riding icons such as Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay and Delahoussaye were shocked by McCarron's retirement announcement. Delahoussaye, 50, might retire in a year or so.

"What the hell are you doing?" Delahoussaye said as he joked with McCarron in the jockeys' room. "You can't do this to me."

Recalling that conversation, McCarron chuckled. There will be more tears by next Sunday, but not now.

"Every day I'm trying to beat Delahoussaye in races," he said. "Now I'm beating him going out the door."

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