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.”
The barn, renovated in the mid-1980s, contains 56 stalls. One of the two men who share the space is Don Combs, who trained 1970 Derby champion Dust Commander. NARA has 18 horses, a used-car lot of geldings, mares and fillies — all of them leased or donated. One won an allowance race at Belmont Park; another hit the wire first a couple of times at Fairmount Park Racetrack in Collinsville, Ill. In the future, the goal is to start stabling young horses on a commercial basis, to help cover barn costs — about $40 a day per horse. Horses would stay for 90-day stints, and students would work the developing Thoroughbreds, preparing those horses for their future racing careers.
The eight jockey students come from all over. Chad Lindsay, 18, is a former bull rider from Weatherford, Texas. Vanessa Ryall is from Norway, where her father breeds horses. She’ll celebrate her 21st birthday on Saturday. Dylan Davis, also 18, is the youngest of six siblings and the son of retired jockey Robbie Davis. His sister, Jacqueline Davis, was in NARA’s inaugural graduating class and is riding professionally (2,180 mounts, 230 wins) on New York racetracks such as Aqueduct.
The students (five of whom are females) are supposed to be here by 7 a.m. five days a week, and all but one — a woman is absent because she needs to fix her car’s brakes — show up at least 30 minutes early. (They do barn work on weekends, too.) There are also three women here from the school’s “horseman’s path,” aspiring to work in the horse-racing industry as, say, trainers or grooms. Right now, each person is cleaning a stall's overnight mess. Remi Bellocq, NARA’s executive director since October, says to me, “The first thing you’ve gotta do is learn to muck out a stall.” I sign a waiver in case a horse kills me and follow him toward Montana’s prison-cell-sized quarters. Barn manager Francois Parisel, who trained Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Nownownow, asks in a thick French accent, “You want to muck a stall? Why do you want to muck a stall?”
Bellocq spent 10 years as CEO of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. His father, Peb, was the Daily Racing Form’s cartoonist for decades. Right now, Bellocq’s teaching me to shovel horse manure. The key, he says, is to save all of the good straw. (Hay, I learn, is what the horses snack on.) His rake and pitchfork scrape the concrete floor again and again, and he dumps unsalvageable mounds into a wheelbarrow. I’m uneasy in the stall’s entrance because, frankly, horses terrify me. You know, hooves crushing faces. What compounds this fear is, every time I’m around horses while working on a story, everybody is constantly encouraging me to relax, explaining that horses can sense my anxiety. “Come on. He won’t kick you,” says Bellocq, handing me the rake. “But he might bite you if you get too close.”
I’m taking forever, interrupting the routine and wasting lots of good straw, and Bellocq keeps snatching the tools out of my hands. Clumps of horse excrement cling to my boots. I’ve already bumped into one of Montana’s water buckets, and my jeans are soaked. Bellocq, who teaches a racing-industry course, ends up doing most of the work — he says he’s rusty, but it takes him no time at all — and lets me empty the wheelbarrow outside the barn. Back inside, I drive the pitchfork into a leaf of straw and shake my arms. The brick of straw explodes, new bedding raining down onto the ground. Bellocq mentions how horses breathe through their noses and some have allergies. My polluted airways are convinced, and I sneak two puffs from my asthma inhaler. The plastic tack caddie carries soft and hard brushes, a mane comb, hoof grease. There’s a spot, a dark circle that looks like a birthmark, on Montana’s back left leg that Bellocq asks me to scrub. “Wait, where do you want me to get?” I ask, wondering how to rub out a birthmark. McCarron pops his head into the stall, snaps an iPhone photo. “The spot of shit right there,” McCarron says.
When I return from retrieving Montana a fresh bucket of water, Bellocq says, “You walked out and he took a big pee. You scared the piss out of him.”
Montana’s stall shined for four seconds. I am Sisyphus.
The horse-riding simulator is called an Equicizer, and it looks like something drunks would enjoy at a state fair. It’s not nearly as tall as an actual horse but its mane makes it resemble the real thing. To make it bob in place, you pump your arms. For me, though, the sharp pain is in my hips. I contort my long legs into an uncomfortable position so my feet “fit” into the stirrups. My head is up, my back parallel to the Equicizer’s body. “That’s good, man,” Lindsay says to me during our third one-minute set. He’s the Texas bull rider. And he’s a liar.
These daily workouts happen just down the road from barn 30, upstairs in a two-floor NARA classroom that’s actually a former apartment with spackled ceilings. You pass through a kitchen to get to the staircase that leads to this room with nine Equicizers, some dumbbells, a pull-up bar in a doorway. A sheet contains each student’s individual workout. After three Equicizer sets, it already feels like magma is coursing through my legs. McCarron loves to share stories from his racing career, little aphorisms he’s picked up over the years. “You know how mushrooms grow? That’s how I treated trainers,” he says. “Keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em a bunch of shit.”
McCarron points at Dylan Davis, who’s the jockey’s son, and me. “You and you,” McCarron says. He orders each of us to do a wall-sit — back against the wall, thighs parallel to the ground. A former student, McCarron says, once did a 40-minute wall-sit. “Taught a whole class while he was doing it,” he says. My legs, already as sluggish as Montana because of the Equicizer, start quivering. “He’s quitting!” McCarron yells. “He’s shaking!” I last one minute, 24 seconds. Davis goes for five minutes.
We return to barn 30 because McCarron, Bellocq and Ryall, the most advanced student, are going to practice entering a starting gate. They mount horses named Gus, Lady and Marble. At the track, on the outside rail, I talk to jockey student Jesse Sauder, who is 19 and, like the others, weighs 105 pounds. “My goal is to win the Derby. Yes, sir,” Sauder says. His blog is My Race to the Kentucky Derby. Sauder’s from Illinois, where he owns a half-Quarter, half-Arabian, and says he visited family in California and went to Santa Anita and Hollywood Park looking for a way to break into the game. Ultimately, he discovered NARA’s two-year program online. (Later, when I ask Ryall how she heard about the school, she says, “Google.”) Work at the barn ends about 4:30 p.m., and Sauder is a waiter at Steak ’n Shake six days a week, until 10 p.m. on weekdays, midnight or 1 a.m. on weekends.
Another student, 22-year-old Laura Carson, was born in Canada, but her family moved to Point Roberts, Wash., because it was cheaper to have horses there than in, say, Vancouver. “When I was six years old,” Carson says, “I told my parents I wanted to be a jockey.” From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., she’s on the overnight shift at a nearby farm, in a “cubby hole” watching broodmares on a TV monitor, ready to alert her boss if a horse goes into labor. “Not a lot of time for sleep,” she says.
Lindsay’s first time on a horse was at jockey school. “Bulls and horses,” he says, “they’re not alike in any way.” Davis, for his part, plans to start out as an exercise rider, hoping to use his sister’s East Coast connections. “I don’t think about the bigger goals constantly,” he says. “If you do that, you can forget to focus on the little things that can make you better.”
Dixie Hayes, who teaches NARA’s equine science courses, says, “The hardest thing for these kids is getting good horses. If you don’t win, you don’t get noticed.” Says Bellocq: “Our job is to get them ready for their first day on the job. We want to be an equine industry workforce academy.” (During year two, students complete internships for various farms and trainers.) Bellocq and McCarron discussed the potential for a school like this for years. “Took Chris retiring to make it happen,” Bellocq says.
Following a successful trip to the starting gate (loading, not breaking), the students ride, first in a paddock behind the barn, then on the smaller of the Thoroughbred Center’s two dirt tracks. McCarron posts the set lists, each kid’s name next to a horse — Polo, Explicit, Sticky, Ease, Yankee. I’m too inexperienced to get on a Thoroughbred. When asked what I’d need to do to become a jockey, Parisel, the Frenchman, says, “You’d have to change a lot. Cut the legs and go from there.” McCarron’s on Montana, and I offer to hot-walk the horse following the second set. I figure he’ll at least let me stand next to them.
The 10-hour day includes one 15-or-so-minute lunch break. I speed to a gas station, the closest thing I can find, and inhale a sandwich. “Speedway’s still in business because of us,” Hayes says. She also informs me that a jockey by the name of Deshawn Parker is about my height and is tearing it up at Mountaineer Racetrack in north West Virginia. My problem would be my weight. Like the first line of the NARA application says: “Preference will be given to those applicants whose weight does not exceed 112 pounds wearing boots, riding britches, safety helmet….”
After “lunch,” I’m the last to arrive in Hayes’ classroom on the ground floor of the former apartment, with the Equicizers stabled upstairs. Most students pack a lunch. Or don’t eat. Sauder tells me that today he’s consuming a single protein bar because yesterday — he’ll do this once a month — he binged at a pizza buffet. “I went to town,” he says. For him, lunch is typically a boring turkey sandwich and “maybe a tangerine.” On his cellphone, an app called MyFitnessPal helps him hit his 1,200-calorie-a-day target. He looks forward to one big meal a week and does confess that, over Christmas break, he put on 20 pounds, which he shed by dieting and exercising. “I told myself if I get too big, I won’t take pills or flip to lose weight. I’ll just stop because it’s not worth putting your body through that.” Good. I won’t need to force myself to vomit to get the full experience.
Hayes pulls up a race at Florida’s Gulfstream Park on her computer, which we watch on a projection screen. She’s interested in the No. 2 horse because she was working at the farm when the filly was born. The mare died during childbirth, and Hayes bottle-fed the foal for the first 48 hours of its life. The filly comes in second. “If she’d have won, I wouldn’t make you take the quiz,” Hayes jokes. There are 11 questions about horse pregnancy (What dates should a mare’s pregnancy be monitored via rectal palpation?), and I don’t know one answer.
- A horse named Moe bites my notebook.
- At one point, McCarron is in a stall, scratching a horse’s withers. The horse, with its mouth, simultaneously returns the favor on McCarron’s back. “Know what this is called?” he asks. “Symbiosis.”
- Each horse’s temperature gets recorded twice a day. Lindsay hands me a thermometer that looks like it could be from my medicine cabinet. “Pat him on the back to let him know you’re here,” Lindsay says. Then what? “Pull up the tail.” Then what? “And stick the thermometer in his butt-hole.” Ninety-nine degrees. “That’s a good temperature,” Lindsay says.
So, anyway, back to Montana and me in the stall. We make it out (with McCarron’s help). The space between all of the stalls forms a figure eight and, atop Montana, I make two loops around half of the barn. It’s stop-and-go, as if red traffic lights dot our path. The first time around, McCarron holds the horse, constantly telling me to keep my heels down, not to pull back on the reins. I’m solo the next lap, which could barely be described as walking. It takes probably 10 times as long as it should, Montana rarely responding when I squeeze my legs or make a clicking sound with my tongue, which I’ve been told to do. “That’s the first step, riding around the barn,” McCarron says when I dismount. Could I be a jockey one day? “I’d sit you down and tell you, ‘Look, it’s probably not gonna work out, you being a jockey,’” McCarron says. “But then I’d encourage you to go the route of a horseman.” In the fall, this group was about twice its current size, and whenever somebody quits, this is what the three instructors say: It just wasn’t in the cards.
At the end of the day, McCarron scores each student’s performance. The rest get 4s and 5s. Montana and me? “One-and-a-half,” McCarron says.
“Doesn’t everybody get a five on Montana?” asks 18-year-old Haley Hester.
Then McCarron invites all of us into his office so the class can see something on his computer. It’s a YouTube video of a three-year-old, a little girl, riding a horse.
Illustration: Matt Mignanelli