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He Knows Easy Rides Are Rare

The fourth race at Hollywood Park that day wasn’t much. The six plugs they loaded into the starting gate were a sorry lot, the riffraff of the track, plating horses. None of them had ever won a race and three of them were 4 years old. You knew right away you weren’t dealing with any Secretariats or Man o’ Wars here.

It was a $60 ride in a $29,000 race on a no-chance 4-year-old for jockey Chris McCarron, a man who has won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and million-dollar purses in the Breeders’ Cup. But he’ll never forget it.

On the far turn of the seven-furlong dash, McCarron’s mount, a shadow-jumper named Full Design, was tucked down along the rail, boxed in by those rank-running cheap horses when, suddenly, the horse in front of him snapped an ankle and went down in a heap. So did Full Design, followed shortly by Chris McCarron, who was cartwheeled out in the middle of the track in the path of oncoming traffic.

“At first, I thought I was all right,” recalls Chris. “And then I felt these three blows to my legs and arm.”

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McCarron had just lived every rider’s nightmare. He had been run over by the field. He looked down at his left leg. It seemed there were two of them. And they were pointing in opposite directions. His other leg and arm were a little better. They were broken, all right, but not in two. The medics wouldn’t need a picture to put them back together.

Now, then, sports fans, what, would you have to say, would be the most uneven matchup in all the world of sport? Tyson vs. Spinks? Joe Louis vs. anybody? Notre Dame vs. Harvard? Man vs. a mountain? The 1940 Bears vs. the Redskins? The Christians vs. the lions?

None of them is more of a mismatch than a 100-pound jockey vs. an 1,100-pound stallion. A thoroughbred race horse would be a handful for Hulk Hogan. You look at a 5-foot jockey like McCarron, with these ringlets of red-gold hair and big Orphan Annie blue eyes, and you wonder how those tiny fingers can handle a wild animal going 40 m.p.h. in a panic.

He’d be almost as well off riding a shark. The last thing in the world a horse wants to do is run in a race. It’s up to the jockey to make him.

The public has no difficulty in comprehending that a guy who climbs into a 200-m.p.h. race car is overmatching himself. They shake their heads when a guy perches on the ledge of a mountain and pushes off with only a hang glider to save him from becoming a pile of scattered bones.

But they take no thought that the undersized young (or not so young) fellow on a temperamental horse’s back is taking his life in his hands every furlong. They marvel at girls in a circus who ride elephants at a slow walk but they snarl at race riders who finish sixth well out from the rail, “Boy, you rode that horse like a taxi--what merry-go-round did you learn to ride on?”

What they don’t know is, the insurance companies rate jockeys right along with auto race drivers, sky divers and guys who put out oil well fires for a living. Channel swimmers can get insured for only a couple of dollars a year. It costs Chris McCarron $18,000. Insurance companies don’t trust horses, either.

McCarron might be as good a rider as there is on a race track today. Whoever is first, Chris is in the photo. No one ever called him “the Slasher,” or “the Pumper,” or “Geronimo,” but he gets out of a horse whatever the horse has to give.

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McCarron once set a record for victories in a year, 546, that held for 19 years, until Kent Desormeaux broke it. McCarron is currently the leading rider at Hollywood Park with 36 firsts, 24 seconds and 23 thirds and an astonishing winning percentage of 26.

But there was a certain poetic irony in McCarron being the one who found himself lying on the track last June 3 with an ambulance coming and a doctor poking a needle in his leg and asking, “Can you feel this?”

It all began three years ago when Don MacBeth, the terminally ill ex-rider who had been injured in a race spill, came out to Santa Anita to get the Georgie Woolf Jockey Award. McCarron and his wife Judy had lunch with the dying jockey and found out that racing had no funds for indigent or ill ex-riders.

“We found that in only five states do jockeys come under workmen’s compensation,” McCarron says. “Every other state considers us independent contractors and disabled riders had nowhere to turn.”

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The McCarrons and comedian Tim Conway founded the Don MacBeth Fund and have since raised hundreds of thousands for downed riders.

For McCarron, every accident is not a disaster. In 1986, he was to ride the 2-year-old champion, Demons Begone, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile when he broke his pelvis in a spill at Santa Anita. At that time, jockey Pat Day was the regular rider for Jack Van Berg’s colt, Alysheba.

With the ride on Demons Begone open, Day took off Alysheba and elected to ride Demons Begone in the Kentucky Derby instead.

It’s an old, familiar backstretch story. Only a month after getting off crutches, McCarron got the mount on Alysheba. He won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Demons Begone bled and finished last in the Derby and dropped out of racing.

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But Chris McCarron knows you can’t always count on a happy ending. That’s why when he remembers the acclaim and thrills of Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses and Breeders’ Cups on national television, he can also recall a June 3 maiden race at Hollywood Park and rejoice that those hoofs hit only his arms and legs.


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