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Emotional Final Day Is a Winner for McCarron

Horse racing: Jockey gets farewell ceremony and two wins in six races, including his last.

June 24, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man of many scripts--mostly compelling ones--Chris McCarron climaxed more than 28 years of horsebacking Sunday by confidently riding Came Home to a two-length win in the $107,500 Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park.

It was the 34,230th race and the 7,141st win of McCarron's career, and the $64,500 winner's share boosted the 47-year-old Hall of Fame jockey's record purse total to $264,351,579. McCarron's second win Sunday came two days after he had made his last out-of-town appearance by riding two winners and taking an all-star jockey competition at Lone Star Park near Dallas.

His riding peers doused him with buckets of water that night; on his farewell day, they deluged him with admiration and praise.

Galloping out Came Home after the race, McCarron had a flashback to a snowy, freezing-cold 1974 day at Bowie, Md., where he rode his first race.

"I was wearing three pair of goggles that day," McCarron said. "But I forgot to pull any of them down. From the three-eighths pole to the wire, I couldn't see a thing. It's a good thing I finished last."

McCarron's older brother, Gregg, who had beaten him to the track by several years, also was riding in Maryland.

"No wonder you couldn't see anything," he said. "You didn't use any of your goggles."

About 90 minutes before the Affirmed, in a winner's-circle lovefest attended by McCarron's family, jockeys present and past and owners and trainers McCarron had ridden for over the years, Gregg McCarron sneaked up on his brother. Chris McCarron had been led to believe last week that his brother, with training and grandfatherly duties in Maryland, wouldn't be attending.

They embraced warmly, both in tears. It was Gregg McCarron who encouraged his kid brother to follow him to the track. But Helen McCarron, their mother, thought that one jockey in the family was enough.

"I remember Chris coming down to Maryland between his junior and senior years in high school," Gregg McCarron said. "He got on a horse and was scared to death. I called our mother and told her Chris had nothing to worry about. I told her that he'd never make it. You know, that's the first and only time I've been wrong."

Marje Everett, the former chairman of Hollywood Park, was part of Sunday's crowd of 16,850. Three of the five jockeys--the still-active Laffit Pincay and Russell Baze and the retired Bill Shoemaker--who rank ahead of McCarron in the win column also were there. It was Everett who staged an all-star jockey competition in 1976, when McCarron got his first exposure to California racing. Two years later--on March 27, McCarron's 23rd birthday--McCarron and his wife Judy flew to the West Coast to stay.

Gary Jones, now retired as a trainer, remembered McCarron's invasion of a jockey colony that then, as now, already was steeped with talent.

"He was wise beyond his years, and very confident," Jones said. "When I asked other trainers to sum up Chris in one word, the words 'phenomenal,' 'fantastic,' 'professional,' 'style' and 'class' are the ones that are used."

Slightly more than a week ago, McCarron announced that he was retiring. He said that he no longer had the wall-to-wall passion that he felt was required to continue.

McCarron rode in five races before his win aboard Came Home.

"I thought I was going to be ready for [the last day], but I was wrong," McCarron said. "I was going along pretty good, but when [his daughter] Erin read that poem in the winner's circle, she got to me. After that, I had trouble with my composure."

Known for his focus as much as his left-handed whip, McCarron ratcheted himself up for the Affirmed. Although McCarron had ridden Came Home to victory in the Santa Anita Derby, more recently they had finished sixth in the Kentucky Derby, and Sunday the colt was running with 124 pounds--about 115 pounds of McCarron and the rest equipment and lead--which was between four and nine pounds more than his five rivals. The horseplayers, many of them buying $2 tickets that would wind up in their scrapbooks instead of being cashed, bet Came Home down to a 2-5 favorite.

Owned by a partnership that included Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan--McCarron's longtime clients--and trained by Paco Gonzalez, Came Home broke alertly and through slow early fractions was second only briefly. After a half-mile he had displaced Kamsack as the leader. He was two lengths in front of Tracemark at the eighth pole and protected that lead to the wire. The margin was two lengths, with Tracemark finishing seven lengths in front of Calkins Road, the third-place finisher. The time for 1 1/16 miles was 1:41 4/5. Came Home paid $2.80 to win.

"When we hit the head of the lane, I had a strong feeling that the race was over," McCarron said. "Because my horse took off then like he typically does. All the way back [to the winner's circle], I was pinching myself. This was all just too good to be true."

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