It has been more than a month since Chris McCarron hung up his tack, and for the Paco Gonzalez barn, life goes on.
McCarron was an integral part of the Gonzalez operation for more than a decade. The 57-year-old trainer gave McCarron a leg up on scores of winners throughout his 28-year career, which ended on June 23 when he rode Came Home to victory in the Affirmed Handicap. Appropriately, Came Home is trained by Gonzalez. It was McCarron’s 7,141st victory, one that helped his mounts earn a record $264 million.
"Aside from being great in the afternoons, Chris was a tremendous help in the mornings," said Trudy McCaffery, who, with John Toffan, has employed Gonzalez as their private trainer for 14 years. "Chris and Paco had a wonderful rapport, and between them, they were able to figure out horses’ quirks. Came Home is a perfect example. He never had anybody else on his back other than Chris (until Mike Smith rode the son of Gone West to win the Swaps Stakes on July 14). It helps when the same rider works a horse all the time. Chris was always around the barn and the staff loved him."
Aside from being a near-perfect position rider, McCarron’s strong suits were intelligence and a knack of expressing himself without an abuse of senseless crutch words, such as, ”˜well, like, you know, I’ll tell you what, um and dude,’ contemporary Valleyspeak for society’s dumbed-down youth. I mean, today’s kids consider watching an Adam Sandler movie a cultural experience. But I digress.
Smith has qualities similar to McCarron’s, on horseback and off, although he is far less testy in dealing with the press and his disposition is consistently more pleasant and light years sunnier.
"Mike is not unlike Chris at all and he’s really molded into the barn beautifully," McCaffery said. "He’s out there every morning working horses for Paco and he goes through the barn. I think he’ll be a tremendous addition."
Smith would have ridden Came Home in Sunday’s $1 million Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park, but his connections decided to pass on that 11/8-mile race for Saratoga’s $200,000 Kings Bishop at seven furlongs on Aug. 24.
Gonzalez, a native of Yahualeca, Mexico, is a hands-on trainer who is much more comfortable handling the chores of a groom than he is a third-degree from the media after a stakes victory.
"Like Chris, Mike works so well in the mornings with Paco, and I think that’s really a key to Paco, especially with young horses," McCaffery said. "You can tell a lot about what a horse is going to be like by how it reacts in the mornings, so it’s a tremendous asset to have a ”˜barn jockey.’ And I also think it’s a communication thing with Paco, which is really important. It helps when you’ve got somebody who understands the way you train and what your goals are.
"Paco likes to keep a low profile with the media and his lack of command of English is part of the reason. That’s why he has a hard time with interviews, because he misses the translation sometimes and then gets embarrassed and flustered. A lot of times a question in English translates completely different to him, so he does get nervous. But he’s getting a lot better."
For years, McCarron unwittingly played Professor Higgins to Gonzalez’s Eliza Doolittle, and their show was as rewarding as "My Fair Lady."
But if Paco’s English is wanting, his respect from horsemen, fans and media is not.
"He never ceases to amaze me," McCaffery said. "When his horses go to the races, they’re ready, and that’s what jocks love. They always know that if they’re on a Paco horse, the horse is going to be fit, sound and ready to go. That’s really important."
HOMESTRETCH: With a small, nondescript field in
prospect for Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Handicap at Monmouth, Bob Baffert
called an audible and now plans to run Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War
Emblem in the 11/8-mile race. If all goes well after that,
War Emblem would run back against older rivals in Del Mar’s $1 million Pacific
Classic on Aug. 25 . . . Baffert said the sudden death from a heart attack on
July 22 of 43-year-old Prince Ahmed bin Salman, whose Thoroughbred Corp. raced
standouts such as 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given and War Emblem,
"leaves a huge void in racing, because he put a lot into the game and he
enjoyed it and loved it. He was becoming quite a character in racing. People
really liked him. I got really close to him the last two years going through the
Triple Crown with Point Given and War Emblem. His death was really hard on me
and I’m still having trouble with it. Not only was he a great client, he was a
good friend. Right now I just have an empty feeling. I’m just glad I got to
know him for the short time that I did. We had a lot of fun together and he was
generous to me it was unbelievable. He was like the Arab with those four white horses in ”˜Ben Hur.’ He just loved his horses." Baffert said he did not know whether The Thoroughbred Corp.’s blueblood racing stock would be sold or not. "All I know is what I hear from (racing manager) Richard Mulhall," Baffert said, "and that is to just keep going. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. There’s a lot of speculation, but everyone is still grieving and in mourning, so nobody knows what’s going on." Grade I winner Habibti, another Thoroughbred Corp. star, recently returned to Baffert’s barn but he said he had no immediate plans for her, while yet another Thoroughbred Corp. ace, the talented Officer, remains at their Bradbury farm in California recovering from a tendon injury suffered after he won the Zany Tactics last April 7.
ARBITER ”” Vastly improved turf runner can extend winning streak on Del Mar grass for Craig Lewis, whose barn is off to a flying start. Look for Arbiter next in the Del Mar Handicap on Sept. 1.
POTRA GIRL ”” Dull at Hollywood, this claiming filly perked up at the seaside and will be one of many winners for Bill Spawr, who won four races the first two days.
VALEDICTION ”” McCaffery and Toffan 2-year-old homebred by Pulpit is one of the most promising juveniles trained by Paco Gonzalez. McCaffery says of their other 2-year-olds: "We’ll probably have quite a few starters." And they can run.