McCarthy On Unlikely Run

by Ed Meyer

posted on April 10, 2009 in General Discussion, Kentucky Derby, Other Events | No Comments >>

General Quarters strutted to the Churchill Downs track yesterday morning sporting one of the new, gold Kentucky Derby 135 saddle towels, which had just been handed out to the three likely Derby horses on the grounds.

Several hours later, the 3-year-old colt was one of 11 entered for Saturday’s $750,000, Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Like almost everyone who has ever tacked up a Thoroughbred racehorse, this is the heady stuff owner/trainer Tom McCarthy long dreamt of achieving.

Derby horses are elusive for horsemen with big pockets, never mind those like McCarthy, who generally doesn’t have more than a cheap claiming horse or two at a time.

“Hey, they claimed Seabiscuit for $1,500,” he said. “I haven’t been very lucky with things like that in my life, I guess, but this time I was. I hit the lottery.”

General Quarters, who earned $120,000 for winning Tampa Bay Downs’ Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 14th, is McCarthy’s only horse in training. If he hits the board Saturday, the 75-year-old former Jefferson County teacher and principal will be Derby-bound with a horse he claimed for $20,000.

McCarthy, who is also General Quarters’ groom and hotwalker, has owned, and at times, bred horses since getting out of the Army in the late 1950s. For years, his horses were trained by the late Joe Puckett, with McCarthy being an involved owner, he said. When McCarthy retired in 1990, the former biology teacher and high school principal at Seneca, Durrett and Valley highs went to the track full-time.

According to Equibase, McCarthy is 13-17-27 in 236 starts as a trainer dating to 1991, with $229,090 in purses.

He doesn’t get credit as a trainer for the Sam Davis because Mark Miller was the trainer of record for the colt’s first three races at Tampa Bay. But McCarthy said he also was in Florida caring for the horse and calling most of the shots. It was the first win by a McCarthy-owned horse since 2006.

“I’d just about gotten out of the business,” said McCarthy, who gave up his horses when he had surgery for prostate cancer. “But I was going crazy. My wife said, ‘Oh, you’re not going back to training.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ “