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As a Career Ends, the Memories Begin

Horse racing: McCarron reflects on his favorite horses during a 29-year career, which ends today at Hollywood Park.

June 23, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris McCarron and his longtime agent, Scotty McClellan, obviously couldn't ride all the horses. For 22 years--the last 22 of McCarron's 29-year career--they picked their spots as best they could, and sometimes the spots picked them. When that happened, when McCarron got his foot in the door with an important horse, he didn't have to ride the animal twice to know what to do.

There's a long list of instant McCarron successes with horses that he got to ride for the first time after they were well along in their careers. As McCarron, 47, puts a period--or more appropriately an exclamation point--on his career today at Hollywood Park, he can look back on Sunday Silence, Go For Gin, Danzig Connection, Pine Bluff, Forty Niner, Life's Magic, Flawlessly, Bayakoa, Estrapade, Winning Colors, Miss Alleged and Mom's Command as horses who fell into that category.

There are McCarron-ridden Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup winners among that collection, but before any of them there was John Henry. By 1983, the unwanted gelding had already won one horse-of-the-year title and earned $3.6 million. He had been ridden by 17 jockeys, none of them McCarron.

Going into 1983, the 8-year-old John Henry belonged to jockey Bill Shoemaker, another old-timer. Shoemaker, past 50, had gotten to John Henry late, but, like McCarron would eventually do, he seized the opportunity. In 1981, the year of John Henry's first national title, Shoemaker took over and rode him to wins in the first Arlington Million, on grass, and on dirt in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in the fall.

But by the end of 1982, John Henry's career appeared to be in free-fall. He had finished first in only one race all year, and in November there was the ill-advised Japan Cup trip to Tokyo, where he became seriously ill and lost lots of weight while in quarantine.

Come mid-1983, however, trainer Ron McAnally told Shoemaker that John Henry was whole again, but Shoemaker was making other plans. He had linked himself with the wealthy Allen Paulson, an aerospace magnate who was forming what would become a powerful stable. For John Henry's seasonal debut, McAnally picked the American Handicap on the Fourth of July at Hollywood Park, but Shoemaker chose to ride The Wonder for Paulson; the mount on John Henry went to McCarron.

The Wonder, favored in the race, finished next to last while McCarron rode John Henry to a 1 1/4-length victory, the horse's first win in eighth months. McCarron's run with John Henry went on until the horse's retirement at the end of 1984: 14 races, eight wins, almost $4 million in purses and a second horse-of-the-year title.

But it's not as though there weren't some hiccups along the way. The second time McCarron rode John Henry was in the '83 Arlington Million, and the other day, as he recounted the mountains he had climbed, the 47-year-old jockey mentioned that race as "one I'd like to have back."

Trying to win thoroughbred racing's first million-dollar race for the second time, John Henry was the 7-5 favorite. The only other early speed in the race was Nijinsky's Secret, and McCarron had John Henry just behind that horse from the start.

"I was sitting on a ton of horse," McCarron said, "but knowing what I know now, I should have moved sooner. I was too patient."

Running along the fence, Nijinsky's Secret lugged out in the last sixteenth of a mile, forcing John Henry out as well. A European longshot, Tolomeo, found room inside as the leaders drifted. If John Henry could eyeball a rival, he could usually outrun him, but while he saw Nijinsky's Secret and thought he had him measured, he didn't see Tolomeo with his late move along the rail. At 38-1, Tolomeo beat McCarron's horse by a neck.

Many jockeys might have cursed their luck and moved on. Not McCarron. He was 28 and already in the firmament, having won Eclipse Awards as an apprentice and a journeyman, but he sagely turned this defeat into a learning experience.

"I discovered that day that getting to know the horse you're riding can be crucial in a spot like that," McCarron said. "John Henry wasn't a horse like Precisionist, he didn't have that abrupt turn of foot. He was more of what I like to call a momentum builder. Losing that Million taught me a great deal. The experience stuck with me. I was able to put it to use in the same race the next year."

The next year, Nijinsky's Secret again ran in the Arlington Million, but this time McCarron was careful not to let him get in the way. An unimpeded John Henry won by 1 3/4 lengths, giving McCarron his first of 21 victories in races worth $1 million or more.

"If ever there was a race that went like the blueprint, that was one," McCarron said.

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