Chris McCarron has been the top race-winning jockey in the United States in three different years. He has won two Eclipse Awards. He is the fifth rider in history (and the youngest) to have ridden mounts who have earned more than $70 million. But nothing he does can alter Californians' view of the jockey hierarchy here.
It is always: 1, Laffit Pincay Jr.; 2, McCarron.
Pincay is the more dramatic and more colorful of the two riders. He is the macho man in the saddle and McCarron is the cerebral strategist. Pincay, too, has better connections to get top horses in major stakes throughout the country.
But after watching the two great riders compete head-to-head this winter, I have to disagree with the popular assessment. The best in the West is Chris McCarron.
Since he broke into the sport in Maryland, winning a record 546 races in 1974, McCarron has developed all of the important skills of his profession. "He's the complete rider," said trainer Wayne Lukas. "Some guys are strong finishers, some you use because they have a good sense of pace, some because they're good at the gate, but Chris has a combination of it all. When he rides Lady's Secret, I know he'll get her out of the gate well, but he won't get her caught up in a hard pace; he's a very heady rider."
It is this headiness -- his good judgment, his sense of racing tactics -- that an outside observer can best see and appreciate in McCarron. On a speed-conducive one-mile track such as Santa Anita, a horse needs to be in a good position early -- near the pace and saving ground. Every jockey knows this, but McCarron gets there more than anybody else. Even if he is breaking from an outside post in a distance race, he will somehow wind up on the rail at the first turn, within striking distance of a speed duel ahead of him.
This is no accident. In McCarron's cubicle in the jockeys' room is a copy of the Daily Racing Form with notations on the style of every horse in every race: "S" for speed, "JO" for just-off-the-pace, etc. "It's important to have some idea about how much speed is in the race," McCarron said. "Besides that, I try to observe all the horses out here and try to pick up their individual habits -- who might lug out on the turn, for example. But the biggest reason I'm able to get into good position is the stock I ride. With lesser horses, the first thing on your mind is getting some kind of run out of the animal. With good horses, you can concentrate on other strategic factors."
But McCarron doesn't feel that tactical sense is his greatest strength. "My forte," he said, "is probably knowing the horses I ride, keeping all the information about them in my head."
McCarron tries to experiment and learn what makes individual horses run best, as he did with Precisionist, the Eclipse Award-winner who will be favored in Sunday's San Antonio Stakes. Precisionist always has been speed crazy, but, McCarron said, "The harder you'd pull on him trying to rate him , the harder he'd pull back. We'd tire each other out. It took several times to find out what he wanted from me, but when I let him run on a loose rein, he learned to relax. It was a trial-and-error thing." After McCarron's experimentation, Precisionist figures to be one of the most successful horses in America this year.
McCarron's skill is fully reflected in his statistics this winter. Against the best jockey colony in the United States, he is running away with the Santa Anita riding title (and has ridden twice as many winners as Pincay). He has won nearly one-third of the stakes races at the meeting. He figures to have a sensational 1986 on the national scene, with such potential champions as Precisionist and Lady's Secret among his regular mounts.
Considering he is only 30, and that he probably has not reached his prime, he could break most of the records in this sport before he is finished. Maybe he even will reach such heights that he will someday shed the stigma of being No. 2.