THIS APPRENTICE IS A SORCERER

Only 19 and in his first year as a race rider, tiny, freckle-faced Chris McCarron wove a spell that brought his mounts to the winner's circle 547 times in 1974, breaking all records
January 13, 1975

Oh, it's a shame Bill Stern isn't still around to tell this one. What a field day he would have had. If you've never heard of Bill Stern, or have forgotten him, he was a sports announcer who featured a fedora and a distinctive style back when Howard Cosell was still a mere child thumbing through a thesaurus, memorizing the longest synonyms. Stern's broadcasts were highlighted by dramatic vignettes that were often uplifting—the last sentence beginning "Despite that handicap..."—or had a homely little twist, a heart-tugger. In his rich voice Stern would portentously exclaim: "And that tousle-haired little bat boy grew up to be...Francis Cardinal Spellman!"—or Omar Bradley or Mad Man Muntz or Eleanor Roosevelt or whoever.

Which brings us to Christopher McCarron, age 19, only lately of Christopher Columbus High School in the Dorchester section of Boston. What flights of fancy Bill Stern would have taken with the nice little fellow all his friends call Chrissie! Here is the story.

On Dec. 6,1973 at Laurel Race Course in Maryland, Chrissie, a $90-a-week groom who had been "terrified" of a horse the first time he had been put up on one, was standing near the winner's circle when Sandy Hawley came home with his 486th win of the year to break Willie Shoemaker's unbreakable world record that had stood for 20 years. "He beat me," McCarron says of Hawley, meaning he had bet on another horse, "but I didn't care. It was such a thrill just because I was standing there and saw history being made."

Hawley, who had mapped out his assault on the record like a military campaign, finished 1973 with 515 winners, a mark guaranteed to stand, as us bobby-soxers used to say, until bobby pins ride on permanent waves. On Jan. 24, 1974, Chrissie McCarron rode his first race. He did not ride his first winner until Feb. 9. Soon he rode three wins the same day, a feat he celebrated by "throwing a potty." Then six winners in a day. And, moving right along, on Dec. 6, 1974, exactly a year to the day after McCarron saw Hawley make history with 486 to top Shoemaker, McCarron rode his 486th. On Dec. 17 he rode his 516th to break Hawley's mark and he ended the year with 547, a record certain to last forever—although, as some people point out, McCarron will have all 12 months to ride in '75, and thus might beat his 11-month effort of '74.

Anyway, it has been an extraordinary experience for Chrissie, who will maintain his five-pound apprentice allowance until Feb. 25. He found the publicity uncomfortable and begged track officials at Laurel, where he was riding, to keep the press away and to stop announcing his numbers each time he came back to the winner's circle. Yet he was really unnerved only one time, late in November, when Baltimore Sunpapers Racing Editor William Boniface wrote in a column that McCarron was receiving "preferential treatment [from] turf officials, track operators and, for that matter, other jockeys."

Furious, McCarron dismissed the charge with one well-chosen barnyard epithet that shattered the innocent repose of his young acolyte's face. Red-haired (curly), bright-eyed (shining blue) and marvelously freckled, McCarron looks like Mason Reese might have appeared had he ever been a child. And yet, as young and guileless as McCarron appears, friends say he has aged during his arduous year. He rode seven days a week (and sometimes eight programs) almost continuously from June on, and accepted 2,199 mounts, itself a record.

Down the stretch, Laurel helped McCarron's quest by ferrying him by private plane and limousine up to Penn National, a minor-league track in Harris-burg, so that he could get in extra licks on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. This was a bit like Lou Brock popping over to Elmira on Cardinal off-days to steal a few bases in the Eastern League, but in racing a win is a win, wherever you get it, so McCarron was only honoring a long tradition. Shoemaker used to moonlight at Agua Caliente in Tijuana when he was going for the title.

The racing circuit in and around Maryland seems to foster more hot jocks than anyplace else in the country. Hawley worked there when he wasn't in Canada. Jimbo Bracciale and Darrel McHargue both had fantastic runs there the last couple of years. Ronnie Ferraro, who in 1962 was the last apprentice before McCarron to win the riding crown, got most of his wins in Maryland. Jesse Davidson won a national title just up the road at Charles Town. Joe Culmone, in Maryland, battled Shoemaker for the record in 1950 and Bill Hartack stormed in from West Virginia right after that. Some boy always seems to be tearing the place apart. Maryland, traditionally an active racing state, nurtures keen horsemen—although McCarron's teacher, Trainer Odie Clelland, comes from New England. On the other hand, the competition in Maryland is nothing like that in New York. No kid could score in the Big Apple as McCarron and his predecessors have in the Free State. It's like opening a good act out of town.

And then, Maryland also seems to help the hot jock by winking at the way he gets to select his mounts. A clever agent, such as McCarron's Eddie Kinlaw, can get his boy up, provisionally, on a number of horses in any race and then pick the best bet at the last minute. Most other states are more stringent. They require the agent to specify a first call and a second call (and no more) when the entries are first made.

The charge that the stewards and other jocks set McCarron up is another thing—an old chestnut invariably roasted whenever a kid starts winging, since the track profits by the publicity. Set the boy down and you're dimming your star, your gate attraction.

As to why other riders would help the kid, there are two explanations. The benign one is that jockeys are nice to one another. The other is that they are larcenous. If riders are going to, shall we say, arrange a race, the easiest way to stitch it together with the minimum of suspicion is to put the hot kid on the engine. The indelicacy of even bothering to tell him that it is a boat race is avoided, since he is all out every race. That is the age-old cynical view about hot boys and their competitors.

On the other hand, because McCarron is so young, an apprentice, he seems to have had a harder time with his colleagues than did Hawley, who was their journeyman contemporary. "I don't see why we should be spotting five pounds to that little so-and-so," Chrissie heard an older jock grumble, just loud enough for him to hear, after McCarron had won another race. He sensed the other riders' jealousy when TV's bright lights invaded the jocks' room. And read what you want into this cryptic exchange that Dale Austin, a Baltimore Sun writer, overheard between two jockeys after a race.

One of the riders was a close friend of McCarron, the other a clever, solid old jock just in from another track. He had leaned on McCarron all down the stretch. "Hey," said the friend as they weighed out, "you were kind of rough on the kid. We don't ride like that down here."

"O.K.," snapped the newcomer. "So now I know where you stand and you know where I stand."

Yet Chrissie was unquestionably eased into the jockey community more smoothly (he picked up an agent almost immediately) because of his older brother Gregg, a journeyman rider good enough to win 299 races and $100,000 in a year. But the big-brother sword cuts two ways. Gregg, five years Chrissie's senior, was "better than meat everything," and long after he had outdueled every other jock around, Chrissie still could not beat Gregg. It took him 2½ months. When he drew within striking distance of the record 516, the younger McCarron began to fantasize, to dream of himself breaking the record by beating Gregg.

Bill! Bill Stern! Put your hat on and come over here and get a load of this.

Gray, overcast, 3:19 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 17, the seventh at Laurel, seven furlongs for 3-year-old $14,000 claimers. McCarron had tied Hawley's mark the day before, but he has the collar so far today, 0-for-5, as he gets tossed up on Ohmylove, a dark bay colt, the 3-to-5 favorite, by Dickie Dutrow, one of the leading trainers in the country.

In the murk and the mud, Ohmylove breaks on top, but an 18-to-1 shot, Boston Ego, named for McCarron's hometown, takes the lead by a length and a half and still has a half-length margin with an eighth of a mile to go. In the winner's circle, straining to see, the father, Herbert McCarron, who is State Secretary for the Knights of Columbus in Massachusetts, suddenly remembers who is riding the leader on the rail. "Oh my God," he says. "It's Gregg he has to beat." A pause; this is no time to be an even-handed father. "Come on Chris, come on!"

Moving to the outside, pushing his bay—"under strong handling" read the chart—Chrissie inches his mount up on Boston Ego. He sneaks a look over at his brother, just like in his dreams. "I saw how hard Gregg was riding, and that gave me inspiration," he says later. A few strides from the wire, the bay catches Boston Ego. Ohmylove hangs on by a nose. A few strides past the wire, the older brother reaches out and shakes his younger brother's hand.

Despite their slight size, the McCarron brothers were active in sports growing up in Boston. The family had Bruin season tickets, and even if Gregg was the better athlete, Chrissie—5'3" and barely 95 pounds then—played varsity for Christopher Columbus in hockey, as a right wing, and in Little League baseball, as a second baseman. "Mostly I bunted or walked," he says.

Chrissie probably would have gone on to college but, seeing his brother's success at the track, he started walking horses at Suffolk and Rockingham, and latched on to Odie Clelland after he graduated from high school in '72. It was months before Clelland let the little redhead get up on a thoroughbred, and then McCarron got down quickly in fear. Confidence came slowly. "That man is unbelievable," McCarron says of Clelland. "Odie made me wait—the more time it takes to train a boy to ride, the better he can be. And when I started going for the record, he stopped asking me to work mornings, so I could just stay in bed. Listen, he still pays me that $90 a week contract money, and here I am making $5,000 a week at the races."

The money, more than a quarter of a million dollars last year, goes into a trust, handled by his mother, Helen Maguire McCarron. (The map of Ireland on Chrissie's face comes from both sides.) He hasn't had time to get a big head, even if he were disposed to, which seems unlikely anyway. It has all come so fast, and he has spent most of his time on horseback. His one big splurge is a new Audi. When he was setting a meet record of 118 wins in 60 days at Pimlico last spring, he was driving a 1959 VW and "catching three stalls for Odie every morning."

By the time he loses his five-pound bug next month, he may already be 100 or 125 winners ahead of his '74 pace, but there should be no dramatic decline in his fortunes. As far back as last summer, Dutrow, a breezy 36-year-old high school dropout whose training records are almost as noteworthy as McCarron's riding marks, told the kid not to worry, he would keep giving him first call with his big string after he lost the bug. "He's got the good hands, like Hawley, and he can feel the pace, like Bracciale," Dutrow says behind his amber-tinted glasses. "He just makes them run."

Far from being an adolescent hell-for-leather daredevil, McCarron rides thoughtfully, "like an old man," according to some. He has a mystical instinct that enables him to stay out of trouble and to move at the right time. He still occasionally gets outhustled to the wire by a cagey old hand, and he says he finds it difficult to whip a strong horse and guide him at the same time, although horsemen marvel at his powerful left-hand whip. Every top jock is able to handle at least one aspect of his craft exceptionally well; this boy is nearly peerless on the left flank.

By numbers, no rider has ever had a year such as McCarron had in his first. For that matter, it is likely no athlete in any sport has ever started off so spectacularly. "I didn't have a slump all year," he says in wonder. He was not injured, and his few brief suspensions served more as welcome respites than punishment, although he was too young and buoyant to be exhausted by his unremitting schedule. He was never without live mounts and—witness his record-breaking race—even his dreams came true.

And yet, despite his good fortune, Chrissie's accomplishment is too substantial for him not to be the real goods. "He could be one of the greatest riders in history," says veteran jockey Herb Hinojosa, who rode against him much of the year. Leroy Moyers, another older rider, says, "I've never seen a kid that could horseback like him in his first year. He could be better than Shoemaker. I know that's a big statement, but he's that good, believe me."

And—you're on the air, Bill—that redheaded little right wing grew up to be...Chris McCarron!

PHOTO PHOTOKNEELING ON BENCH IN JOCKEYS' ROOM, McCARRON LOOKS TOO YOUNG TO BE A RIDER
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)