To be successful, a jockey must have more than just talent. It takes training, a proper work ethic, an understanding of nutrition and the people skills to communicate and politic with owners and trainers. Those were the lessons Chris McCarron learned on his way to the Hall of Fame, lessons he will soon teach to a new crop of Chris McCarron wannabees.
McCarron, who retired in 2002 with 7,137 career victories, is in the process of opening the first riding academy in this country, a development that has been long overdue. Most other racing countries have similar programs with graduates exiting the schools with the skills and knowledge necessary to begin a career as a jockey. In the U.S., prove to someone that you probably won't fall off the horse and you, too, can be a licensed jockey.
"It's ludicrous to think that every other country puts aspiring riders through a program like this, yet in this country, which has the best racing in the world, we don't have anything," McCarron said. "That's mind-boggling. Once I get this going, I plan to lobby various racing commissions and other organizations to see to it that there are minimum requirements and standards for jockeys."
That probably won't be an issue with graduates of McCarron's academy, which is tentatively set to open in December at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Taught by McCarron himself, the students will learn from the ground up and will, McCarron says, be fully polished and prepared for a riding career upon graduation.
McCarron hatched the idea to start a riding school in 1988 when he was riding in Japan and visited that country's jockey academy. When he retired in 2002, his plans were put on hold, first by his role in the Seabiscuit movie, and later because he accepted a job with Magna Entertainment running Santa Anita. As happens with most of Magna's executives, McCarron didn't last long at Santa Anita. He resigned in January and, soon thereafter, packed his bags and moved to Lexington to start his school.
The idea is not to teach someone just to ride a horse, but to turn out the complete package. Students will learn everything from how to muck out a stall to how handle their money to how to properly create a body that must be athletic but unnaturally light.
There used to be trainers who were willing to do just those things when they took a young rider under contract and taught them from the ground up. But few if any potential jockeys enter into contract agreements anymore, nor do they start at the bottom learning the basics of horsemanship. The result, says McCarron, is a slew of jockeys who are under-prepared when they begin their careers.
"I won't name any names but there are riders out there now who started their careers without any kind of education," he said. "It's been on-the-job training."
McCarron's initiation began in the early seventies when he started working in the barns at Rockingham Park. He hooked on with a trainer named Odie Clelland, who also mentored Eddie Arcaro. It was Clelland who sculpted McCarron into a jockey by teaching him every phase of the business. McCarron will do the same for his students.
"He made you work your butt off in the barn; he made you do everything," McCarron said. "You walked hots, you mucked stalls, you were a groom. You started at the bottom of the ladder and worked your way up and you didn't get promoted until you had learned the skill and paid your dues. You'd learn everything about the horsemanship aspect before you ever got a leg over a horse. That way, you can come back after a race, and, if you felt something funny about a horse, you can tell a Bob Baffert or a Bobby Frankel that there might be a problem, with an ankle, a knee, whatever."
But Clelland never had the riding knowledge that comes with a Hall of Fame career. McCarron does, and he will share it with his students.
At the start, he wants to accept no more than 10 students and he will be the primary instructor. But McCarron would like to see the academy grow so that he can take on more students and hire other former riders as teachers. The horses used for training will be retired race horses supplied by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. He has the support of the entire racing industry and virtually every top racetrack in the country is represented on the board of directors. McCarron expects students will remain in the academy for 18 to 24 months before graduating.
Then, it will be up to them. McCarron can't promise they will be successful, but he can guarantee they will be ready. Having been taught by the best, it will be easier to be the best.