This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, visit loumag.com.
"This fit you?”
Chris McCarron has offered me his riding helmet. I squeeze it onto my skull. Snug. The sweat-damp inside is cool on my forehead, and I (literally) soak it all in, perspiration from this retired Hall of Fame jockey. “You’re gonna get on this pony,” he says. For the first time in my 27-year-old life, I’m about to climb aboard a horse, a white-and-brown paint named Montana. Montana is 14. “Gotta start somewhere,” McCarron says. I forget to buckle the chinstrap. Nerves.
It’s early March, a Wednesday morning, and we’re just outside Lexington’s city limits at the Thoroughbred Center, a 130-acre blanket of Kentucky bluegrass that’s home to 1,000 horse stalls. Barn 30, with its weathered white paint, houses the North American Racing Academy, McCarron’s brainchild that teaches its students, many of them fresh from high school, to become jockeys. I’m here for the day.
I set my reporter’s notebook on a block of straw and approach my steed. “Montana is lazy,” McCarron says. “Needs lots of encouraging.” He instructs me to bend my left leg at the knee. McCarron grabs the shin of this 90-degree angle, and I jump off my right foot. The barn’s dirt-and-wood-chip floor is soft and springy. I swing my right leg over Montana’s backside and land in the leather saddle. It’s smooth, slick as helmet sweat. I’m six feet tall, weigh a buck sixty-five, and I half expect my momentum to carry me straight off the horse. Somehow, the two-time Kentucky Derby winner is able to give me a successful leg up. Then, before McCarron has a chance to help me slip my toes into the stirrups, Montana beelines into a stall.
“Duck!” McCarron shout-laughs. “Watch your head!”
McCarron founded the North American Racing Academy in 2006, and since then about 35 students have graduated. Nineteen of them are licensed jockeys, one a licensed trainer. Several are exercise riders. He texts his former students whenever they win a race, and he shows me the “virtual stable” on his iPhone. The most successful graduate, Ben Creed (2,573 mounts and 309 wins as of March 9), has seven upcoming races on a Friday at Turfway Park. In Phoenix, Tyler Kaplan will ride in some claimers at Turf Paradise. Kristina McManigell has a couple of mounts at Penn National Race Course. In total, NARA graduates have combined to win almost $16 million in purses.
McCarron’s idea for the school started taking shape in Tokyo at the 1988 Japan Cup, a race he won on a horse named Pay the Butler. He stayed in Japan for more than a week and spent some of that time speaking to students from the Japan Racing Association. “Their full-blown racing program impressed me,” McCarron says. Two years later, a grisly crash at Hollywood Park ruptured his left thigh and shattered his right leg and right forearm. “In the hospital, I thought about what I’d want to do after my racing career ended,” he says. “We were the only major racing country that didn’t have a school.” Not anymore.
On this March Wednesday, before the rising sun streaks the sky in a pastel palette, McCarron is inside barn 30’s laundry room (it says “NARA” on the detergent bottles) cleaning saddle cloths and girth covers. “I do whatever it takes,” he says. He’ll be 57 by the time you read this, his once-fiery locks — years ago, the hairdo could have
been described as a perm — reduced to white stubble on the sides of his otherwise bald head. He stores a tin of Grizzly chewing tobacco in the back right pocket of his Gap jeans. He still has the horseman’s handshake, hardened from decades of gripping the reins.
His office’s wood-paneled ceiling matches the walls, on which hang several framed photographs and newspaper clippings. McCarron on ’87 Derby winner Alysheba and on Go for Gin, who won the roses in ’94. John Henry. Tiznow. Sunday Silence. There’s a Hollywood Park winner’s-circle photograph from the day he retired, June 23, 2002, that captures him celebrating victory — the 7,141st of his career — with a horse called Came Home. McCarron finished his career with 34,230 races and a purse total of $264,351,579. “This school certainly lets me stay intimately involved with horse racing,” McCarron says. He grew up in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. “I learned everything at the track,” he says, mentioning how jockey Eddie Arcaro was a mentor. “All Eddie Arcaro ever did was win five Kentucky Derbys,” he says. If he didn’t need a school, why do these kids? (Tuition for out-of-state students can cost in the ballpark of $30,000.) “Anybody can pilot a horse,” McCarron says. “We make smart riders.”