hris McCarron was a natural. Maryland racing fans knew that when they saw the curly haired kid start his career at Bowie in 1974 and watched him proceed to win more races than any jockey has ever won in a single year.

They should see him now.

Unlike so many riders who are sensational apprentices and then fade into oblivion, McCarron has matured and developed his skills.

He has become a brilliant tactician, and in competition with the most illustrious members of his profession he leads the jockey standings at Santa Anita.

"I won all those races back in Maryland because I had the God-given talent to get horses to run for me," McCarron said. "But it wasn't until I came out here and had been riding for three years that I felt I had any finesse or knew the finer aspects of riding."

McCarron knew nothing about horses when he was growing up in Dorchester, Mass., a working-class suburb of Boston.

Only after his brother Gregg became a jockey and achieved some success at the Maryland tracks did he take an interest in the sport. Following Gregg's footsteps, he went to work for trainer Odie Clelland, who was renowned as a developer of young riders.

After McCarron spent two years learning the basics, he won his first race on a snowy February day at Bowie. The rest is history. In December at Laurel he broke Sandy Hawley's record for victories in a season, and he finished the year with an amazing total of 546.

McCarron continued to be the dominant rider in Maryland, but he had grander ambitions.

He paid one brief visit to California in 1976 and said, "I was very impressed by the whole operation. The jockeys' room was very relaxed and jovial; there was very little animosity here." Two years later he came here to ride full-time against the giants of his profession--men such as Hawley and Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.

"I didn't realize how spoiled I'd been in Maryland," McCarron said. "I rarely went to the barns in the morning; my agent did all the work. Here I'd gallop between three and seven horses a morning. At the Hollywood Park meet I rode about 500 horses and won 65 races. I was drained."

Not only did he have to work harder off the track; he had to work harder and think more in the races, too.

He learned quickly that the game is played differently here. One day McCarron was riding in a grass race and led into the far turn, with a strong horse under him.

Then a rival ridden by Shoemaker moved up outside him and got a neck in front. In Maryland, McCarron would have expected the other jockey to let him hold his position on the rail. Not here.

"He crept up about three-quarters of a length in front of me," McCarron recalled, "and then--bam!--he dropped over. I snatched up and dropped back to fifth. I said, 'Jeez! The leading rider in the world just shut me off!' I got a lesson.

"The riders here are very aggressive. They put you in very tight but they do it with a lot of ability. If they can trap you, they do. If you're running second behind the leader, and you've got a horse outside you, the jockey outside you won't let you come out. If he does, you'd have no respect for him."

In Maryland, McCarron had been a patient, low-key kind of rider--"I always liked to ease horses back at the start and make one run"--but he adapted quickly to the aggressive California style. Other riders, such as Pincay, might be endowed with greater physical skills, but nobody outthinks or outmanevers McCarron. He always seems to have his horse in the right place at the right time.

Since he moved to California, McCarron has twice been the country's top money-winning rider. He won the 3,000th race of his career here last year. But what are more impressive than his statistics are the skills he exhibits in day-to-day competition.

McCarron was riding a horse named L'Chicle in a cheap claiming race here, starting from the outside post in a field of 10. His horse had some speed and broke well, but several other horses inside him were showing speed, too, and McCarron realized that he was going to get hung out wide around the turn. So he restrained L'Chicle slightly on the backstretch, let the leaders get a little in front of him, then asked his horse for a little acceleration so he could cut over to the rail.

While the three leaders were battling head-and-head, L'Chicle sat behind them, saving ground all the way around the turn. Then, after turning into the stretch, McCarron went to work, drove up the rail and won by a nose in the final strides. L'Chicle could only have won with an absolutely perfect ride, and he got an absolutely perfect ride.