Chris McCarron, 25, was the youngest person in the dinner crowd at Don Peppe, a restaurant located near New York's Aqueduct racetrack. The 5'2" McCarron was also the smallest male diner and, at 109 pounds, by far the trimmest. As he ate a giant bowl of pasta with meat sauce and knocked back a veal chop weighing more than a pound, the other customers watched him with both envy and interest. People always seem fascinated by jockeys and what they eat—or don't eat. But these days McCarron is attracting more than the usual amount of attention, not because of his diet—an unusually hearty one for a jock—but because he's involved in a dramatic chase largely of his own making.
McCarron is trying, with a great deal of success, to become the fourth jockey ever to lead the country in number of winners ridden and purses won while amassing 400 or more first-place finishes in a season. Only Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Steve Cauthen have accomplished this feat in the 72 years that such records have been kept. At the end of last week McCarron seemed a cinch to lead in both winners and money earned, and he was only seven victories short of 400. With purses of more than $7 million, McCarron has already earned some $700,000 for himself this year. So what keeps pushing him?
William (Red) Terrill, one of New York's most proficient trainers, looked at McCarron's statistics and said, "He's in the position now where he is riding for Uncle Sam. But you have to admire his ambition and desire to be the best. Even for a young man, the time he is putting into this is remarkable."
Since mid-September McCarron has followed the punishing schedule of riding as many as eight races a day at Aqueduct and then driving to the Meadowlands in New Jersey to compete at night. He often does not return to his room in a Queens, N.Y. hotel until after 1 a.m., and only once since he traveled east from his home in California has he enjoyed a night out on the town.
"When I left the West Coast, my wife, Judy, my two kids and I had just moved into a new house in Glendale," says McCarron. "I felt terrible about leaving Judy with all the work, and I miss my children terribly. I told Judy in September that I had decided not to go to New York to try to win the money and winners titles, that I wanted to stay and help the family get settled in. She said, 'Chris, you're going to New York. You're very close to doing what you want to do. Go do the rest of it. Do it for us and do it for yourself, too.' When I get through work at Aqueduct, I rush back to the hotel and call them every day. On some of those days when things haven't gone well and fans have screamed, sworn and booed the heck out of me, that one phone call makes me forget. I know how hard I'm trying, and it's worth it. To me, there is no feeling of exhilaration like winning a race. I guess it's a feeling something like a surfer gets when he's on top of the wave."
The public normally assumes that the rider who leads the nation in winners also leads in money earned. But things usually do not work out that way. A good example is McCarron himself. In 1974, at the age of 19, he set a world record for winners, with an astounding 546, but Laffit Pincay earned the most money even though McCarron beat him by 205 winners. A year later, McCarron again had the most victories—468—but Braulio Baeza won the money championship while not even finishing in the top 30 in winners ridden. In both those years, Pincay and Baeza were winning major stakes with horses like Foolish Pleasure, Susan's Girl, Wajima, Optimistic Gal, Judger and Honest Pleasure, while McCarron's victories were coming mostly in cheap claiming races in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Even in 1980 McCarron has not been very fortunate in big-money races. "It may sound silly to say this," says Vince DeGregory, McCarron's agent, "but we have more or less nickeled-and-dimed ourselves to the top in money earned. We have only won five $100,000 races. That figures out to about $300,000 in purses for Chris. Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Maple have made over $1 million each with just two horses, Spectacular Bid and Temperence Hill. Chris' climb to the top this year has been very difficult."
Also very well programmed by both agent and rider. For the last five months McCarron has been battling Angel Cordero Jr. for both titles, but a suspension of Cordero has all but eliminated him from either championship. Cordero was set down for seven days for fouling McCarron in a Nov. 16 race at Aqueduct and still has two unserved seven-day suspensions in New Jersey.
The battle between the two jockeys was ready to erupt last July when the California-based McCarron and DeGregory decided to head east to Saratoga and duel Cordero for 24 days. Then they rethought the matter. "Cordero just about owns Saratoga," DeGregory says. "He rides his very best at that meeting, or seems to. We decided to stay at Del Mar and win races there so that we could at least remain close to Angel in winners. Oh, we knew we'd have to go east eventually. But the timing was important. Moving a jockey from one coast to another is difficult, because a rider who's based in a certain area has steady clients among local owners and trainers. Chris had never ridden in New York for any length of time, and we had to establish ourselves as quickly as we could once we got there."
So McCarron waited until mid-September to go east, first to the Belmont meeting and then on to Aqueduct. Cordero rode 46 winners at Belmont to McCarron's 21, but McCarron rode brilliantly at Aqueduct. He got his first Big A winner in the first race on opening day; he then won on his first mount at the Meadowlands. He quickly became the leading rider at Aqueduct and pushed himself into second place among the riders at the Jersey track. In October and November, McCarron ended up in the winner's circle more than 100 times. Not bad for a young man who was once afraid of horses.