Thirty-five years ago, Chris McCarron arrived on the horse racing scene like one of those stealth bombers flying over the Rose Parade. Suddenly, he was just there.
He was immediately competitive, an instant winner. Horse players quickly learned to look for him at the head of the pack. Other jockeys needed time to blossom. McCarron showed up in full bloom.
On Feb. 9, 1974, the 5-foot-2, 109-pound McCarron climbed aboard a 5-year-old gelding named Erezev for a race at Bowie in Maryland. It was freezing cold. The blizzard that had blown through that morning, leaving five inches of snow, had forced the cancellation of morning training at the track.
"It looked like the kind of day they'd cancel the race card," McCarron says. "They weren't worried about us. They would cancel when they thought the fans couldn't get to the track to bet."
By 10:30 a.m., the snow stopped, snowplows pushed it to the fences and racing went off as planned with a 1 p.m. post time.
McCarron was 18, one of nine children from Dorchester, Mass., whose older brother, Gregg, had become a jockey and enticed Chris to the track, even though Chris initially was petrified of horses. The year before, as an exercise rider, Chris had started to catch jockey fever when he saw Sandy Hawley break Bill Shoemaker's record of 485 wins in a single season.
"I was in the crowd when they were taking pictures of him," McCarron says. "I kept trying to get in position so I could jump up just as the cameras were shooting and try to get in the picture. I knew this was history."
Little did McCarron know how he would be tied to that history, or how soon.
On that freezing February day at Bowie, in only his 10th mount as an apprentice jockey, McCarron rode Erezev to victory, McCarron's first. As tradition held then, and still does today, a jockey's milestone victory brings a dousing of water, as well as shaving cream and eggs. Also, there is the boot black.
"It's just liquid boot polish," McCarron says, "but it sure stings once it gets onto your genitals."
It turned out the ritual was much more ordinary than its recipient, who turned 19 one month later. In quick order, somehow getting placed frequently on quality horses by veteran jockey agent Eddie Kinlaw, McCarron started winning. And winning.
Hawley had continued past Shoemaker's 485 to end his 1973 at 515 wins. By December of the next year, the teenager who had tried to jump into Hawley's photo was about to have a record of his own.
McCarron had won so often after his victory with Erezev that he started to ride as many as eight cards a week. He would run at Bowie and/or Monmouth Park and Delaware Park through Saturday afternoon, then hop in a car for a two-hour drive to Grantville, Pa., where they raced Saturday night at Penn National. He'd stay for Sunday racing at Penn National, then head back to Bowie.
"After a while, the drive to Penn National got too tiring," McCarron says, "So Penn National got a two-seat Cessna and flew me back and forth."
Remember, this was not Shoemaker or Laffit Pincay Jr. This was an apprentice jockey.
On Dec. 17, 1974, at Laurel in Maryland, McCarron got aboard a horse named Oh My Love, saddled by trainer Richard Dutrow Sr. In the stands were his father and lots of fans clued in to the possibility of history being made. In the same race, aboard Boston Ego, was Gregg McCarron.
Oh My Love and Boston Ego ran nearly stride for stride from wire to wire. At the end, Oh My Love got his nose in front and apprentice jockey Chris McCarron had set a record for wins in a season with 516.
This time, the traditional water douse and shaving cream and eggs didn't wait for the privacy of the jockeys' room. Young McCarron took it all in the winner's circle.
"I remember, it was freezing cold," he says.
Not cold enough to keep him from going out, in the very next race, and winning No. 517.
Before the end of the year, McCarron had increased that record to 546. When the Eastern tracks closed down for three days at Christmas, he flew to Calder in Miami for more wins.
"I ended up not racing on Christmas Day," McCarron says. "I told my mom I was going to and she said I would over her dead body."
Win No. 546, the standard that would remain for 15 years until Kent Desormeaux won 598 in 1989, came aboard the mare Sarah Percy on Dec. 31. McCarron had ridden 2,199 mounts, or 2,188 after that first win with Erezev.
To this day, only Hawley, Edgar Prado (536 in 1997), McCarron and Desmoreaux have won more than 500 races in an American racing season. After 35 years, McCarron still ranks second. Eager to prove his 1974 wasn't a fluke, McCarron won 465 races in '75 for a total of 1,011 in two years.
His lightning-strike career never really toned down. He came to California and started racing here March 27, 1978, his 23rd birthday. He retired in June 2002 with 7,141 wins, sixth all-time. Those include nine Breeders' Cup races -- five in the Classic -- plus two victories in each of the Triple Crown races. He went into the Hall of Fame in 1989, the same year that Desormeaux broke his single-season win record.
McCarron served as general manager of Santa Anita for about two years, then left to become founder and director of North America Racing Academy near Lexington, Ky. His first class of jockeys is starting to compete now.
It is unlikely that any of his students will take to it as quickly as the now 53-year-old McCarron, who still remembers that first win 35 years ago as if it were yesterday.
"Erezev was named after his dam [mother]," he says. "She was Vezere. They just spelled that backward."