It was a hot and sunny day at River Downs today, but that could be any of the 100 + they conduct racing. I drifted in to spend a little time watching and betting a buck when two old regulars pointed and hollered, “Hey, who is that guy over there?” – Well, as I sat with my Seabiscuit visor and shades in the tiki bar, I interjected the arguing fools with a small blast of truth. Gents, that is Chris McCarron.
Yep, little River Downs has been the home of many greats since 1925. Seabiscuit ran there, Derby winner Spend a Buck, and home of the rider who just eclipsed Jerry Bailey’s wins, Mr. Perry Wayne Ouzts. Oh, there have been many others of the whose-who fame, but today Chris McCarron was on deck bringing his class from the North American Racing Academy located in Lexington, Kentucky. They were heading to the rail following their teacher. The N.A.R.A is the only school in the United States that offers a college level program for jockeys. It was his brainchild, and what an idea it has surely been. But seeing the man took me back on this summer day as I remembered watching him ply his trade as smooth as polished steel. McCarron was smooth, and to say he had the goods was an understatement.
Can you remember in Derby 113 when Alysheba almost went down after clipping the heels of Bet Twice? Not only did McCarron hold him together, he won the roses that day. Or, for Derby 120 when Go For Gin came rolling to get up in the shadow of the wire. Oh yeah, they don’t come around like that very often. But, I most remember the part he played in the movie Seabisuit. He played Charlie Kurtsinger, the rider of super-horse War Admiral who locked up in a match race in 1938 with Seabiscuit. The horses were in the paddock, and Gary Stevens was playing the part of George “The Iceman” Woolf who was to ride the biscuit. They looked each other over like two boxers in a pre-fight dance who were about to declare war. When Stevens (Red Pollard) looked over at McCarron (Charlie Kurtsinger) and acknowledged the rider by saying “Charlie,” and the snide draw of McCarron (Kurtsinger) looked back and only responded his name, “Red.” – When the legendary call from Clem McCarthy played, and they showed scenes from the era, I still find tears gathering in the corners of my eyes. Yep, the man was here…
Years prior, I was introduced to him by your Winning Ponies Internet show host, John Engelhardt. John knows everybody, and that is saying it lightly. I shook his hand and spoke to him for a few moments. I am not one to be star-struck, but his regular guy ways made me feel comfortable. At Christmas that year, John gave me a signed Derby photo of Alysheba. It still sits on my bar next to the Derby program the day my grandparents got married. It was 1938. The same year when Seabicuit and War Admiral did battle in front of 40,000 fans at Pimlico racetrack.
It was a good day at the track. I watched young riders do battle, and saw a man who made me fall in love with the sport. He still looks like he could tack weight and ride in the next race. But, the lucky students that have him pointing the way should not miss a class. This guy gave more lessons on a nine-race card than many in a lifetime in the saddle.