It was three years ago this week that Chris McCarron rode the first winner of his career, a claimer named Erezev, on Feb. 9, 1974, at Bowie.

Odie Clelland brought the young appentice down from New England that winter. McCarron accepted his first month Jan. 27. Then came Erezev . . . and the rest is Maryland, and American, racing history.

McCarron led all riders in the country in 1974 in number of winners, with 546. He repeated at the head of the list in 1975, with 468. Currently starting his fifth season, McCarron has established himself among the nation's top 10 jockeys in winners and among the top 20 in money earned each season.

Soon, beginning April 12, McCarron will find out how good he really is. He is going to California for the start of the Hollywood Park meeting shortly after Bowie closes March 17.

"The time has come to give it a whirl," McCarron said recently between races at Bowie. "It's not that I think I have anything left to prove. I'm not out to prove anything to any body. Not here. Not anywhere. I just want to make a good living for myself and my family, and California looks like a great spot in which to do it.

"I know I can ride. I believe I can make a better living out there."

McCarron undoubtedly is correct in his appraisal of time and tracks, although he has done rather princely in Maryland, earning more than $200,000 a year. But the big money in thoroughbred racing is in New York and California. McCarron will earn his share.

This is a young man who has his head on straight, a comment not to be taken lightly when discussing jockeys. or, as Post handicapper Clem Florio observed, "Chris has it all together."

Florio has watched McCarron in action approximately 300 days a year over each of the last four seasons. Clem is a hard man to please. McCarron pleases him.

"He still uses too much stick and not enough hands, and maybe he's in a rut because he hasn't really been challenged around here," Florio said. "But I'll bet anyone that McCarron winds up being the best rider out there. He's better than (Darrell) McHargue, and McHargue is going great at Santa Anita right now.

"Chris has the good head" Florio continued. "He's a good gate boy and, like (Steve) Cauthen, he is rare in that he won't ask a horse to run until that horse takes hold of the bit. He lets the horse tell him. he will surrender position if he has to until the horse is ready."

Too much stick and not enough hands, particularly during the last 30 or 50 yards of a stretch drive. If McCarron will put the stick away earlier, he will be better off, Florio contends, and the handicapper is certain that the stronger competition among jockeys in California will make him polish this aspect of his art.

Not that McCarron needs much improvment, in the minds of Maryland bettors. They appreciate his talent and his integrity. They are going to miss him.

"It will be like starting fresh," Chris noted. "I'm going to have the same agent who took McHargue out there, Harry (The Hat) Hacek, who had Darrell when he was here in Maryland. i believe Bobby Frankel is going to give me the opportunity to ride some horses he trains, which will help.

"Harry also threw a few other trainers' names at me. Lenny Goodman (Cauthen's agent) rcommended The Hat to me very highly. I hope to stay out there. If I can get lucky, I'm gonna stay."

Luck will have little to do with it. McCarron repeatedly has shown that he belongs with the best of his profession. He will have Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay to compete against most of the year, plus Cauthen and Angel Cordero at Santa Anita.