Chris McCarron, 25, was the youngest person in the dinner crowd at Don Peppe, a restaurant located near New York's Aqueduct racetrack. The 5'2" McCarron was also the smallest male diner and, at 109 pounds, by far the trimmest. As he ate a giant bowl of pasta with meat sauce and knocked back a veal chop weighing more than a pound, the other customers watched him with both envy and interest. People always seem fascinated by jockeys and what they eat—or don't eat. But these days McCarron is attracting more than the usual amount of attention, not because of his diet—an unusually hearty one for a jock—but because he's involved in a dramatic chase largely of his own making.
McCarron is trying, with a great deal of success, to become the fourth jockey ever to lead the country in number of winners ridden and purses won while amassing 400 or more first-place finishes in a season. Only Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Steve Cauthen have accomplished this feat in the 72 years that such records have been kept. At the end of last week McCarron seemed a cinch to lead in both winners and money earned, and he was only seven victories short of 400. With purses of more than $7 million, McCarron has already earned some $700,000 for himself this year. So what keeps pushing him?
William (Red) Terrill, one of New York's most proficient trainers, looked at McCarron's statistics and said, "He's in the position now where he is riding for Uncle Sam. But you have to admire his ambition and desire to be the best. Even for a young man, the time he is putting into this is remarkable."
Since mid-September McCarron has followed the punishing schedule of riding as many as eight races a day at Aqueduct and then driving to the Meadowlands in New Jersey to compete at night. He often does not return to his room in a Queens, N.Y. hotel until after 1 a.m., and only once since he traveled east from his home in California has he enjoyed a night out on the town.
"When I left the West Coast, my wife, Judy, my two kids and I had just moved into a new house in Glendale," says McCarron. "I felt terrible about leaving Judy with all the work, and I miss my children terribly. I told Judy in September that I had decided not to go to New York to try to win the money and winners titles, that I wanted to stay and help the family get settled in. She said, 'Chris, you're going to New York. You're very close to doing what you want to do. Go do the rest of it. Do it for us and do it for yourself, too.' When I get through work at Aqueduct, I rush back to the hotel and call them every day. On some of those days when things haven't gone well and fans have screamed, sworn and booed the heck out of me, that one phone call makes me forget. I know how hard I'm trying, and it's worth it. To me, there is no feeling of exhilaration like winning a race. I guess it's a feeling something like a surfer gets when he's on top of the wave."
The public normally assumes that the rider who leads the nation in winners also leads in money earned. But things usually do not work out that way. A good example is McCarron himself. In 1974, at the age of 19, he set a world record for winners, with an astounding 546, but Laffit Pincay earned the most money even though McCarron beat him by 205 winners. A year later, McCarron again had the most victories—468—but Braulio Baeza won the money championship while not even finishing in the top 30 in winners ridden. In both those years, Pincay and Baeza were winning major stakes with horses like Foolish Pleasure, Susan's Girl, Wajima, Optimistic Gal, Judger and Honest Pleasure, while McCarron's victories were coming mostly in cheap claiming races in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Even in 1980 McCarron has not been very fortunate in big-money races. "It may sound silly to say this," says Vince DeGregory, McCarron's agent, "but we have more or less nickeled-and-dimed ourselves to the top in money earned. We have only won five $100,000 races. That figures out to about $300,000 in purses for Chris. Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Maple have made over $1 million each with just two horses, Spectacular Bid and Temperence Hill. Chris' climb to the top this year has been very difficult."
Also very well programmed by both agent and rider. For the last five months McCarron has been battling Angel Cordero Jr. for both titles, but a suspension of Cordero has all but eliminated him from either championship. Cordero was set down for seven days for fouling McCarron in a Nov. 16 race at Aqueduct and still has two unserved seven-day suspensions in New Jersey.
The battle between the two jockeys was ready to erupt last July when the California-based McCarron and DeGregory decided to head east to Saratoga and duel Cordero for 24 days. Then they rethought the matter. "Cordero just about owns Saratoga," DeGregory says. "He rides his very best at that meeting, or seems to. We decided to stay at Del Mar and win races there so that we could at least remain close to Angel in winners. Oh, we knew we'd have to go east eventually. But the timing was important. Moving a jockey from one coast to another is difficult, because a rider who's based in a certain area has steady clients among local owners and trainers. Chris had never ridden in New York for any length of time, and we had to establish ourselves as quickly as we could once we got there."
So McCarron waited until mid-September to go east, first to the Belmont meeting and then on to Aqueduct. Cordero rode 46 winners at Belmont to McCarron's 21, but McCarron rode brilliantly at Aqueduct. He got his first Big A winner in the first race on opening day; he then won on his first mount at the Meadowlands. He quickly became the leading rider at Aqueduct and pushed himself into second place among the riders at the Jersey track. In October and November, McCarron ended up in the winner's circle more than 100 times. Not bad for a young man who was once afraid of horses.
One of nine children, McCarron was born and raised in Dorchester, Mass., not far from Suffolk Downs. But until he was 15, he had never been to a racetrack. "In 1969 my older brother, Gregg, went to ' work as a stable hand at the track and I couldn't understand why he did it," McCarron says. "Gregg, who was working for a trainer named Odie Clelland, would come home stinking like a race horse, but I could tell he really loved it. Still, I didn't pay much attention to Gregg. He was just dreaming a kid's dreams. I spent my time following the Bruins and Celtics."
In 1970 Gregg had an excellent year, becoming the second-leading apprentice rider in the country and earning more than $50,000. So Chris decided to go see Clelland, too. "But I was deathly afraid of horses," McCarron recalls. "I really feared them."
He groomed horses, walked them, filled feed tubs and washed saddlecloths and bandages. Then one morning Clelland decided that the time had come to put McCarron on a horse. "It was a filly," Chris recalls, "and she sensed I was afraid of her and took advantage of me. She kept buck-jumping and I completely froze. Mr. Clelland hollered, 'Get off, get off!' But I was too afraid to move. Finally somebody grabbed the horse and I got down. I felt terrible. They didn't allow me back up on a horse for 10 months."
Then one afternoon in 1973, at the track in Laurel, Md., he watched Sandy Hawley ride his 500th winner of the year. It made an impression. "Nobody had ever ridden 500 winners before," says McCarron, "and I heard the cheers and thought, 'I have just witnessed something that will never happen again.' "
In January of 1974 McCarron, no longer afraid of racehorses, took his first mount at Bowie. He finished, as race-trackers say, "absolutely" last. He got his first winner on his 11th ride, also at Bowie. Quick.
Oh, how quick. By the time 1974 was over McCarron had those record 546 winners. "I wanted to stop when I passed Hawley's record of 515," McCarron says, "but Mr. Clelland said to me, 'Do what you want, but you could set a record that will never be broken. Not many people in sports ever get that chance. Why don't you think about going on with it?"
McCarron did. He rode six days a week in Maryland and then drove 2½ hours to Penn National to ride Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons before returning to Maryland to get up at 6 a.m. Monday to work for Clelland.
In 1975 McCarron led the country in winners again, and in 1977 he took his first trip to California to ride in a Champion Jockeys race at Hollywood Park. He took a look around and decided to stay. "I knew it would be hard on me because California was filled with outstanding riders," he says. "I also knew that I would have to make some major adjustments in my riding style. In Maryland I had won most of my races from coming off the pace, but in California the riders push their horses from the get-go. But I felt I could adapt."
The statistics show that McCarron was indeed able to change, though much of his success must be credited to just plain hard work. He spends two hours a day reading the past performances of the horses he will ride in the Daily Racing Form. "A jockey does not handicap a race like a horseplayer does," he says. "He looks at the past performances of his horse and the others in the race to see how the horses run: do they like it up front, outside, inside, between horses. Does it have speed or come from off the pace? That gives you an idea of what might go on."
McCarron also feels that as a young man in Maryland he gained a decided advantage over other young riders by studying the films put together for the use of the stewards. "I watched every race from a lot of different angles," he says. "They shot at the start, backstretch, three-eighths pole, three-quarters pole, the pan shot. I picked up on the riding styles of other jocks and also the habits of a lot of horses. I thought doing that might help me, and I guess it did."
Now, although the days and nights of autumn have been long and punishing for McCarron, he knows that soon he'll rest. "I have to get a couple of weeks off," he says, "because on December 26 Santa Anita opens, and I must be ready for that meeting. I need to get off to a good start because that is really the beginning of the 1981 racing year." It sounds as if McCarron wants to stand on top of the wave again.