After jockey Chris McCarron won the Preakness in Baltimore last month, a reporter sidled up and asked him if he’d been feeling a bit nervous lately. McCarron, 32, didn’t hesitate. “Nervous?” he said. “Does Dolly Parton sleep on her back?”
Yes, McCarron is nervous, and why not? He and his equine partner Alysheba, the stylish bay colt out of Alydar, are on the verge of cutting themselves a piece of turf history. They won the Kentucky Derby early in May. Two weeks later they won the Preakness. Now, only one leg remains of racing’s fabled Triple Crown: the Belmont Stakes this Saturday in New York. At a mile and a half, it is the longest and most searching test of the three races, and McCarron wants it badly. “Winning the Triple Crown would be the ultimate accomplishment of my career. It’s something you dream about but don’t really think about,” says McCarron, well aware that only 11 riders have won the Triple Crown in the 112 years the races have co-existed.
With the Derby and the Preakness safely tucked away, Alysheba, with McCarron up, should be the Belmont favorite at even odds or less. Yet even if they finish out of the money, both horse and jockey have had an electrifying ride to the top. Just a few months ago it looked as if McCarron might never race again. Last Oct. 17, while riding at Santa Anita in California, he was involved in a five-horse spill—a jockey’s greatest occupational hazard and nightmare. The horse in front of McCarron went down with a broken ankle. In the chain reaction that followed, his own mount went tumbling, and the 5’3″, 111-lb. McCarron was catapulted from his saddle as several thousand pounds of horseflesh and bone came thundering over him.
When his wife, Judy, got to the hospital an hour later, Chris’s friends from the track looked exceedingly grim. When they directed her to the hospital chaplain, “I thought, ‘Chris is gone—he’s dead,’ ” she recalls. In fact, he was very much alive, but in pieces. Though, miraculously, none of the horses had struck him, another falling jockey had landed on top of him, shattering McCarron’s left leg in four places. Before a team of surgeons implanted a metal plate and secured it with 11 screws, doctors told Chris it would take him at least 12 months to come back. But McCarron refused to be scratched. He became a Nautilus junkie and sat in front of the TV, riding an exercise bike 10 miles a day. By March he was ready to ride, though the fall left mental scars. “I was apprehensive,” admits McCarron. “There was a lot of anxiety because I’d never been that seriously hurt before. But after a few races I lost that.”
Like his jockey, Alysheba has lived through his own fall and rise. Great things were expected of the colt, but in his 10 lifetime starts before the Derby, he’d won just once while finishing second five times. Track regulars have a name for that: sucker horse—meaning a horse that comes close enough to tempt unwary bettors, but lacks the ability, or the guts, of a winner. Then, in March, it was discovered that the thoroughbred suffered from an “entrapped epiglottis.” That is, the flap of cartilage behind his tongue became swollen whenever Alysheba ran, cutting off his oxygen supply. It required two hours of surgery to get Alysheba breathing—and running—easier. Two months later the onetime sucker horse held on gamely to win a jostling, bumping Derby that nearly put McCarron on the ground once again.
But McCarron held on, as the best jocks usually do. The two-time Eclipse Award winner has won nearly 4,500 races and taken home almost $5 million in purse shares. And if you don’t believe the numbers, just ask the legendary Willie Shoemaker. “He probably wins on horses that other guys couldn’t win on,” says the Shoe, 55, who still rides against him. In racing circles, the hands are the lines of communication between horse and rider, and McCarron is known for his strength and finesse. “Those hands are something,” adds Shoemaker. “Guys who have that touch and feel are born with it.”
In addition to touch and feel, McCarron was born in Boston, with eight brothers and sisters, to a court stenographer and a seamstress. The family wasn’t poor, but there wasn’t much disposable income. “My parents were always teaching me the value of a dollar and how difficult it can be to make a living,” says McCarron. Chris followed his older brother, Gregg, onto the track and found not only a job but also romance. At Rockingham Park in New Hampshire he met Judy, a cigarette distributor’s daughter who was working as a hot walker. With their three daughters, they now live in a grand, Tudor-style mansion in Beverly Hills. They live well, and that sometimes troubles McCarron. “I find it difficult to think I could very easily go out and get anything I wanted,” says McCarron, who remembers a time when he couldn’t. “Buy, buy, buy and go crazy,” he says, shaking his head.
One thing McCarron can’t buy in the ordinary way, of course, is the Triple Crown. Still, with Alysheba, a clear track and no more than his share of plain racing luck, he may find the price in his talented hands.