Champion Jockey: Willie McCarthy

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Willie McCarthy earned his first jockey championship this year. The 31-year-old Irishman won 23 races from 91 rides, stamping a nine-win margin on former champions Paddy Young and Ross Geraghty.

McCarthy won the majority of his races for all-time leading trainer Jonathan Sheppard, including the Iroquois aboard Divine Fortune and three races aboard champion novice All The Way Jose. McCarthy also guided timber champion Hot Rize to win the Virginia Gold Cup and the New Jersey Hunt Cup.

TIHR’s Sean Clancy wrote a feature about McCarthy for next month’s Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred (it’s good), here are some of McCarthy’s thoughts on life as an American jump jockey.

TIHR: What are you doing for the winter?

McCarthy: I’m working for Mickey Preger in the mornings, school in the afternoon. It’s good to be available to school for as many people as possible, it worked last year. I was schooling with Bernie (Dalton) for Sheppard, hoping to pick up third-string rides, when Darren (Nagle) got hurt, Sheppard moved me up to second call and luckily some of them started winning and it took off from there.

TIHR: What’s it like to ride for Sheppard?

McCarthy: When you’re riding for Jonathan Sheppard, whether he’s having his best season or not, you have a good chance at being champion. If you’re not, you’re wasting your time. Obviously, the key is to stay in one piece.

TIHR: You led the standings from beginning to end, how different was that?

McCarthy: I was in a position this year that I had never been in before, you’re leading something and trying to keep the accelerator going. It was a new situation, something I had never dealt with before, everything that happened this season was totally new to me. I’d like to think I’d work with it better in seasons to come.

TIHR: Awesome spring, stellar fall, horrible summer…you won two races from early May to late September?

McCarthy: That’s right, I won two races on All The Way Jose this summer and they were spread out, Philadelphia Park and Saratoga. I think I won 12 races in the spring, two in the summer and nine in the fall. The summer was very stressful, I was thinking, ‘Am I ever going to ride a winner at Saratoga? Is the place jinxed for me?’ I was glad to get a winner there. It was pretty big for me mentally, if he didn’t, I would have gone into the fall second-guessing myself, ‘Was I just a flash in the pan in the spring?’ Him winning pumped me back up, I was ready to rock and roll in the fall. Having that quiet summer, it was happening too easy in the spring, the guys got within one or two before Middleburg, and I had a double and went on from there.

TIHR: What were the highlights?

McCarthy: Divine Fortune was huge, my first Grade 1 winner, That set the bar for me, he put me up there and I wanted to stay up there. Finally breaking my duck at Saratoga, now I can go in there with a different frame of mind, winning the Champion Hurdle at Far Hills on All The Way Jose to end the season. Hot Rize was good too.

TIHR: As well as you rode this year, you were also a good agent.

McCarthy: I was lucky enough to have people calling me up, the hardest part I had this year was to pick the right horse. Just try to get on the right horse, try to keep people happy, try to let people down gently without pissing them off, it’s not easy and it’s stressful. Luckily I did not fall out with anybody or mess anybody around. I made commitments to horses and stuck with them. I had that conversation with quite a few people, ‘Look, I’ve committed and I’d do the same thing for you.’ It worked out. There were winners I missed, but it evened itself out over the course of the season.

TIHR: Describe your first full season in 2011, when you went 1-for-44.

McCarthy: I was OK with it, it was a get-yourself-out-there season. Initially, I thought it was going to be easy to come over and get going, as soon as I came over and saw the situation, I had a different opinion, I knew I was going to have to work at it.

TIHR: What was the breakthrough?

McCarthy: Baltic Shore got me going, he was the horse that put me out there, I won a maiden hurdle on him in the spring of 2011. Then, that winter, Arch Kingsley called me and asked me if I would be interested in riding more for him, I got excited about that and Arch and I had a great spring (in 2012), that set the ball rolling.

TIHR: Who did you work for in Ireland and England?

McCarthy: Jessica Harrington in Ireland. She straightened me out, she sorted out my cockiness at the time. I was coming from pony racing thinking I was Frankie Dettori, she brought me down quick. I worked hard for her, Moscow Flyer was there at the time. She’s a fantastic trainer and a great woman. Tom George in England. Ian Williams. I rode for everybody as a claimer, I had a great time in England. I moved there when I was 22.

TIHR: You’ve talked a lot about making a commitment to being champion jockey.

McCarthy: Once I got on Baltic Shore and saw that I could get on a good horse and do the business, I pulled myself together and said ‘Don’t waste it.’ I don’t drink during the season, I quit smoking, I work hard on my fitness. I’m not a big drinker but I don’t drink during the season because it helps with my weight. The heaviest I get during the winter is 155, but my weight stays between 45 and 50. I’m always losing weight, but it’s not that big a struggle, it’s always within eight- to 10-pound zone. If I stick to a routine and do the things I have done over the last few seasons, I don’t see my weight being a problem.

TIHR: Have you had time to reflect on the championship?

McCarthy: During the season and during the last weekend, everything is happening fast, I was in my zone, focused, it didn’t set in until later. Having my father, my brother, my cousin here, it made me reflect. Two weeks later, my family had gone home, I reflected on my season and what had actually happened sunk in, it made the hair on my neck stand.