Family, thrill of winning drive McCarron

May 16, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Chris McCarron is tooling along on the San Diego Freeway in his Mercedes 300E, carrying on a phone conversation with a newspaper reporter who is asking him, at 6:15 a.m. Los Angeles time, to contemplate the meaning of his life.

Or, in more specific terms: Why, Chris, are you still hustling after all these years?

McCarron's riding career, which began in Maryland 20 years ago, came crashing back into the national horse racing consciousness May 7 when the 39-year-old jockey won his second Kentucky Derby.

It wasn't just that he did it with a metal rod in his leg, on a horse, Go For Gin, who was virtually foreign to him, but how he did it.

In front of 130,000 people at Churchill Downs and millions more watching on TV, not to mention a herd of horses and hungry jockeys breathing down his neck and splashing along in the slop behind him, McCarron took the lead when no one else dared to. He had enough confidence in his and the horse's ability to dominate this group and coast home two lengths in front as if that had been the game plan all along.

But, then again, fortitude and, in his words, "a God-given talent to communicate with horses" always have stood McCarron in good stead.

"What this Derby win showed," said his agent, Scott McClellan, who has been handling the jockey's book for nearly 15 years, "is that Chris can still win the big one."

As McCarron approaches 40, his curly red locks are starting to thin, but he shows no intention of slowing down.

What keeps driving him, after he has won just about every major race in America, reaching the sport's Hall of Fame and surviving horrific spills in 1986 and 1990?

"The thrill of riding horses that can run," he said. "I love to win. Maybe it was the kind of perseverance Odie instilled in me."

"Odie" is the late Odie Clelland, the New England-based trainer FTC who wintered at Bowie Race Course and gave not only McCarron his start in the business, but also Chris' wife, Judy, who worked for Clelland as a groom.

So what does McClellan think drives McCarron?

"Family and bills," his agent said. "He has a lot of responsibilities. He's got three daughters, and two of them have show horses, and his wife also rides. It costs a lot of money to keep that kind of thing going."

"I don't feel I have to push to provide for my family," McCarron said. "I have enough money to take care of them, even though we've developed kind of an extravagant lifestyle out here. It definitely helps to make this kind of money."

Judy McCarron laughs when she recalls seeing her future husband for the first time.

"It was definitely not love at first sight," she said. "He was a junior in high school and came to work for Odie during the summer at Rockingham Park [in New Hampshire]. He was this chunky little kid."

But three years later, when she came to Maryland to work for Clelland, there was McCarron again, "and that's where the metamorphosis took place. All of a sudden, he got the nicest body," she said.

The pair started dating the year McCarron began his riding career, when he set a national record for apprentices, winning 545 races.

Four years later, after he had achieved all he could accomplish on the Bowie-Pimlico-Laurel circuit, the McCarrons moved to California. They made the shift on Chris' birthday. At the time, Judy was pregnant with their first child, daughter Erin.

"The hicks from Maryland moving to L.A.," Judy McCarron said.

It wasn't long before McCarron established his reputation in California, at one point winning nine consecutive race meetings beginning with Hollywood Park in summer 1982 and running through 1983.

Then came the first of two career-threatening spills. In a five-horse pileup at Santa Anita in October 1986, Laffit Pincay Jr. landed on McCarron's leg, breaking it in five places. It required installation of a metal brace and 5 1/2 months of recuperation before McCarron could ride again. But he rebounded the next year, landing the mount on Alysheba, whom he rode to his first Kentucky Derby victory in 1987.

McCarron then started what might be considered the golden age of his career, riding Alysheba and Sunday Silence to consecutive triumphs in the Breeders' Cup Classic. But misfortune hit him again in June 1990 at Hollywood Park. McCarron shattered the same leg in another spill, and broke a bone in his arm and one in his knee. This time, a metal rod was inserted in the leg.

As he lay in traction, McClellan recalled, "Chris read the newspaper stories of the account, which sort of implied, 'We've seen the last of Chris McCarron.'

"I've never seen Chris so upset. Unbelievably, in 70 days after the injury, he was back on a horse, and 10 days later, he won his first race after the spill . . . . I don't think any athlete in history has come back and shown that kind of courage."

Lately, McCarron has been fighting to hold his own in the national rankings, competing against younger jockeys such as Mike Smith and Kent Desormeaux.

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