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Oh, it's a shame Bill Stern isn't still around to tell this one. What a field day he would have had. If you've never heard of Bill Stern, or have forgotten him, he was a sports announcer who featured a fedora and a distinctive style back when Howard Cosell was still a mere child thumbing through a thesaurus, memorizing the longest synonyms. Stern's broadcasts were highlighted by dramatic vignettes that were often uplifting—the last sentence beginning "Despite that handicap..."—or had a homely little twist, a heart-tugger. In his rich voice Stern would portentously exclaim: "And that tousle-haired little bat boy grew up to be...Francis Cardinal Spellman!"—or Omar Bradley or Mad Man Muntz or Eleanor Roosevelt or whoever.
Which brings us to Christopher McCarron, age 19, only lately of Christopher Columbus High School in the Dorchester section of Boston. What flights of fancy Bill Stern would have taken with the nice little fellow all his friends call Chrissie! Here is the story.
On Dec. 6,1973 at Laurel Race Course in Maryland, Chrissie, a $90-a-week groom who had been "terrified" of a horse the first time he had been put up on one, was standing near the winner's circle when Sandy Hawley came home with his 486th win of the year to break Willie Shoemaker's unbreakable world record that had stood for 20 years. "He beat me," McCarron says of Hawley, meaning he had bet on another horse, "but I didn't care. It was such a thrill just because I was standing there and saw history being made."
Hawley, who had mapped out his assault on the record like a military campaign, finished 1973 with 515 winners, a mark guaranteed to stand, as us bobby-soxers used to say, until bobby pins ride on permanent waves. On Jan. 24, 1974, Chrissie McCarron rode his first race. He did not ride his first winner until Feb. 9. Soon he rode three wins the same day, a feat he celebrated by "throwing a potty." Then six winners in a day. And, moving right along, on Dec. 6, 1974, exactly a year to the day after McCarron saw Hawley make history with 486 to top Shoemaker, McCarron rode his 486th. On Dec. 17 he rode his 516th to break Hawley's mark and he ended the year with 547, a record certain to last forever—although, as some people point out, McCarron will have all 12 months to ride in '75, and thus might beat his 11-month effort of '74.
Anyway, it has been an extraordinary experience for Chrissie, who will maintain his five-pound apprentice allowance until Feb. 25. He found the publicity uncomfortable and begged track officials at Laurel, where he was riding, to keep the press away and to stop announcing his numbers each time he came back to the winner's circle. Yet he was really unnerved only one time, late in November, when Baltimore Sunpapers Racing Editor William Boniface wrote in a column that McCarron was receiving "preferential treatment [from] turf officials, track operators and, for that matter, other jockeys."
Furious, McCarron dismissed the charge with one well-chosen barnyard epithet that shattered the innocent repose of his young acolyte's face. Red-haired (curly), bright-eyed (shining blue) and marvelously freckled, McCarron looks like Mason Reese might have appeared had he ever been a child. And yet, as young and guileless as McCarron appears, friends say he has aged during his arduous year. He rode seven days a week (and sometimes eight programs) almost continuously from June on, and accepted 2,199 mounts, itself a record.
Down the stretch, Laurel helped McCarron's quest by ferrying him by private plane and limousine up to Penn National, a minor-league track in Harris-burg, so that he could get in extra licks on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. This was a bit like Lou Brock popping over to Elmira on Cardinal off-days to steal a few bases in the Eastern League, but in racing a win is a win, wherever you get it, so McCarron was only honoring a long tradition. Shoemaker used to moonlight at Agua Caliente in Tijuana when he was going for the title.
The racing circuit in and around Maryland seems to foster more hot jocks than anyplace else in the country. Hawley worked there when he wasn't in Canada. Jimbo Bracciale and Darrel McHargue both had fantastic runs there the last couple of years. Ronnie Ferraro, who in 1962 was the last apprentice before McCarron to win the riding crown, got most of his wins in Maryland. Jesse Davidson won a national title just up the road at Charles Town. Joe Culmone, in Maryland, battled Shoemaker for the record in 1950 and Bill Hartack stormed in from West Virginia right after that. Some boy always seems to be tearing the place apart. Maryland, traditionally an active racing state, nurtures keen horsemen—although McCarron's teacher, Trainer Odie Clelland, comes from New England. On the other hand, the competition in Maryland is nothing like that in New York. No kid could score in the Big Apple as McCarron and his predecessors have in the Free State. It's like opening a good act out of town.
And then, Maryland also seems to help the hot jock by winking at the way he gets to select his mounts. A clever agent, such as McCarron's Eddie Kinlaw, can get his boy up, provisionally, on a number of horses in any race and then pick the best bet at the last minute. Most other states are more stringent. They require the agent to specify a first call and a second call (and no more) when the entries are first made.
The charge that the stewards and other jocks set McCarron up is another thing—an old chestnut invariably roasted whenever a kid starts winging, since the track profits by the publicity. Set the boy down and you're dimming your star, your gate attraction.