Jockey Darrell McHargue has a good memory.
He remembers as a young teen-ager not knowing the differences between a bridle and halter. He remembers July 14, 1972, four years later, the day he won his first race at Arlington Park after a score of losing attempts. And he remembers the hard knocks on the Maryland and Pennsylvania circuits after he graduated from the apprantice ranks and became a journeyman rider in 1974.
McHargue is 23 now, and the recent memories are good ones. He closed out the fall Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita with his first racing title there, despite missing the last three days of the meet on a suspension. His mounts have earned more than $3 million this year. McHargue is generally considered to be the top all-around rider in California against competition that includes Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Fernando Toro.
One of the most knowledgable horsemen recently offered this evaluation: "You might take Toro on the turf or Shoe in the big stakes races. But if you're looking for the all-around jockey who can ride any kind of horse at any distance on any surface, it's got to be McHargue. Maybe (Sandy) Hawley is still a little bit ahead when he comes in from the East to ride - and maybe not. It's been a subtle thing, but Darrel in the last year has quietly reached the top."
Although McHargue has a modest manner, this evaluation does not differ substantially from his.
"When I rode in Maryland, I was trying to put everything together," McHargue said in an interview in the Santa Anita jockey room. "My mind was like a magnet. Now, I've begun to notice the little things. I'd come back to the room and other jockeys would say about a rider, 'Did you see him go up in there.' Meaning that he was riding into a situation where he shouldn't have gone. I'm getting to learn the places to stay out of."
McHargue said his biggest adjustment in California was to become more skeptical about the conventional riding wisdom that you should "conserve your horse, save ground and have something left at the finish."
At the major California tracks the claiming races carry a high enough price tag to encourage trainers to take good care of their horses, and the climate is suitable for year-round racing. As a result, a number of sound, well-conditioned horses are entered in any given race.
"Good horses are able to withstand losing ground," McHargue believes. "You can ask a little more of them and they still have something left at the end. I couldn't believe it out here when I saw horses go four wide and win."
The emphasis at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park is on position riding. Jockeys try to avoid being boxed, even if they have to lose ground to do it. McHargue is considered exceptional at rating his horses and says he prefers to ride this way in most races because "I feel more confident when I can get a look at the race."
He believes that the quality of such top Maryland jockeys as Chris McGarron and Vince Braceiale is equal to the quality of top jockeys here but says the depth goes greater - in jockeys as well as horses - in California.
McHargue grew up in Oklahoma City, where his father is a mechanic, and became acquainted with horses for the first time working on a New Mexico farm during the summer. He was 14.
Horse owner Wayne Fessmeyer took McHargue under his wing and "taught me about horses and the world." McHargue was small and unafraid, and he soon aspired to become a jockey.
His sharpest memories are winning his first race aboard a horse called The Thing To Do at Arlington Park, trying to crash the New York circuit the following year and failing and riding for owner Dan Lasater around the East and Midwest.
Maryland race-goers probably remember McHargue best for the upset victory he scored in the 1975 Preakness aboard Master Derby, the first of seven stakes victories he won aboard that horse. The same summer McHargue wed Pat Passmore, the daughter of veteran Maryland rider Bill Passmore, and was lured West by Bobby Frankel, one of the top trainers. Riding Frankel's horses, he won the jockey title at Del Mar in 1975.
He has been a leading rider here since, usually finishing among the top four at the big meetings.
At one point the Oak Tree meeting. Shoemaker had twice the winners of McHargue, who caught him by tripling for four consecutive days. He would have tripled a fifth straight day except that one of his mounts, a trouble-prone gelding named Authorization, was disqualified for causing interference in the stretch.
The last week of the meeting pitted Shoemaker's bad against McHargue's suspension. The other jockeys were far behind. Shoemaker was excused from mounts on two days but rode the final three while McHargue was suspended. Shoemaker rode three winners the final Sunday and narrowly missed with three on closing day that would have tied him for the riding title.
McHargue finished with 36 winners, a winning percentage of 24 and an in-the-money percentage of 52. The prevailing view at Santa Anita was that the title didn't matter that much to Shoemaker, who has won more meetings than he can count but that it mattered a great deal to McHargue.
The onetime Oklahoman, by far the youngest of the top California riders, doesn't dispute that winning was important to him.
"I got my goal early to be a top rider and to stay there," he said. "I like my work, and that's what I intend to do."