Competitive spirit spurs McCarron to 7,000 wins

April 17, 2001 6:26 AM
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Laffit Pincay Jr., 54, Eddie Delahoussaye, 49, Chris McCarron, 46.

Still crazy after all these years. Still riding with the eye of the tiger.

For all three, senior citizenry is closer than the memories of their 21st birthday, but they are riding as though in their prime. Retiring is not in immediate sight, so long as the fire of competition burns in their bellies.

The thrill of victory keeps the old boys going.

Just ask McCarron, who will soon become only the seventh jockey in history to win 7,000 races. He stood at 6,996 through Sunday.

"Competitive spirit is something you’re born with," said McCarron, whose mounts have earned more money - over $250 million - than any jockey in history. "My dad was a fierce competitor on the baseball field or whatever sport he was playing, and my brothers are all the same way. Having been raised with five other boys in the family, and three sisters, it was competition just to get a seat at the (dinner) table."

McCarron said competitiveness is an acquired trait as well as natural. "Competitive spirit in humans and in equine athletes as well can be trained into them, to a certain degree," he said. "But the ones with the keenest competitive spirit, I think, have a gift they’re born with."

McCarron, a native of Dorchester, Mass., displayed a talent to ride horses and win races from the start, although it didn’t seem that way when he finished last aboard his first mount, Most Active on Jan. 24, 1974, at the now-defunct Bowie Race Course. Sixteen days later, McCarron broke his maiden. He has been winning ever since.

"Winning and getting horses in position to win definitely comes with experience," McCarron said. "The talent is God-given. The ability to communicate with horses is something a successful jockey is born with, and most successful riders also know how to put their horse in a position to win. Riders who win a lot of races are able to do that because they place their horses well and save something for the most important part of the race, the part when they build up speed and then maintain it."

When he began his career, the thought never occurred to McCarron that he might win 7,000 races and be enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame, which occurred in 1989. Understandably, it’s been a learning process.

"I never thought about 7,000 wins when I started out," McCarron said. "I expected to have fun, because my brother, Gregg, thoroughly enjoyed his job when I was following his career (Gregg retired as a jockey in 1993). Before I started riding, he would always express how much fun he was having, and it looked like fun.

"My expectations of success were non-existent. I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know what to expect. But along the lines of enjoying it, I did expect to enjoy it, which I have."

McCarron still gets a kick out of riding, but his greatest thrill is in the chase.

"I still have a lot of desire to compete and I enjoy my work," McCarron said. "But I thoroughly enjoy looking for that next possible Derby mount, or that next possible big handicap horse. That’s always a challenge, and it’s fun."

It’s also satisfying to Chris that his services are still in great demand.

"It certainly is a nice ego boost when you’re still sought after," he said.

McCarron’s "fondest memory in racing" is his induction into the Hall of Fame. "That is the achievement I’m most proud of," he said. "It’s not the most exciting thing, the most thrilling, but it’s the crowning achievement, no doubt in my mind."

McCarron has thought about becoming a trainer when he retires from riding, but the intangible intricacies do not appeal to him.

"I’m fascinated with the art of training," McCarron said, "but it looks less likely all the time, because the labor issues are very, very complex, and very disheartening. It’s not just this potential unionization (of backstretch help) that’s on the doorstep, but the difficulty in finding good help. I think you can talk to any trainer on the backside and they’ll tell you what a chore it is just to find a decent hot walker nowadays. They’re really up against it. Becoming a trainer would be a little too aggravating."

McCarron has already provided his incalculable insight as analyst on network telecasts of major races, but with horse racing generally relegated to the last sports page near the penile enlargement ads, he recognizes that chances would be limited.

"It’s something I would consider pursuing, but how much call is there for that?," McCarron asked. "Broadcasting would be part-time work. When I retire from riding, my full-time job will probably be trying to find my ball in the rough."

THE HOMESTRETCH: If McCarron doesn’t win No. 7,000 at Santa Anita, it could come Saturday at Pimlico, where he rides four likely favorites, including Burning Roma for trainer Tony Dutrow in the $200,000 Federico Tesio Stakes. McCarron is no stranger to Pimlico and Maryland. He won 546 races on that circuit in 1974, his first year as a jockey. "I hope he does it here," says his long-time agent, Scott McClellan. "I’d like to participate in the ceremonies instead of watching it on TV, because I’m not going to Pimlico." . . . After Santa Anita Derby runner-up Crafty C.T. broke his maiden by 3½ lengths on Feb. 3, trainer Christopher Paasch asked Zucker "if he would entertain seven figures" for Crafty C.T. Paasch made the offer on behalf of Rod Rodriguez, who owns the stakes-winning filly, Collect Call. Zucker refused, telling Paasch they had already turned down $1.5 million for the son of Crafty Prospector. "Zucker didn’t want to go to the Kentucky Derby with the horse," Paasch said, "but that would have been our plan." . . . Simon Bray expects a solid meet at Hollywood Park, which begins a 66-day run Friday night. "My number of winners may not be high, but my percentage should be good," the 31-year-old trainer said. "My horses are stabled at Hollywood and I think that gives me an advantage. The barns are bigger, it’s more spacious, it’s quieter and the track surface is better. Any horse that trains at Hollywood consistently should have an edge."