Matt McCarron used to joke that he spent years intentionally not looking down at the legs of horses he rode in the morning as an exercise rider or in the afternoon as a steeplechase jockey.
That changes today as McCarron starts his new job as the trainer at Merryland Farm in Maryland. Champion jump jockey of 2003 and 2004, McCarron will oversee the horses in the breaking/training/leg-up business which can include up to 60 Thoroughbreds at various times of the year. Merryland, owned by Josh and Mike Pons, takes in outside clients and works with horses bred and/or owned by Country Life Farm partnerships. The 180-acre facility, in Hydes, Md., includes a 5-furlong training track.
McCarron, 44, succeeds J.R. Walsh, who retired to Florida, in the position. The job is a career change for McCarron, the son of former flat jockey Gregg McCarron and nephew of Hall of Famer Chris.
“I never had any intention of training horses,” he said, “but it’s the perfect opportunity to start a new chapter.”
He comes with plenty of background in racing as an exercise rider in the barns of Mary Eppler, Mike Trombetta, Jonathan Sheppard, Neil Morris and Doug Fout among others. Beyond galloping jobs, McCarron rode steeplechase races for 20 years, winning two titles, collecting 206 victories over jumps and riding the likes of champions Hirapour, Demonstrative and McDynamo and Grade 1 winner Sur La Tete.
McCarron gets a chance to emulate a long list of jump jocks turned trainers, including Jimmy Murphy, Scotty Schulhofer, Leo O’Brien, Barclay Tagg, Chuck Lawrence and dozens of others, though the Merryland job brings a different twist on training. For one, the horses get ridden in the afternoon to ensure quality exercise riders. For two, Merryland is more of a staging ground than full training operation. Young horses get started there, learn the gate, the turns, the cues from riders, the competition. Older horses return from layoffs or injuries, get back to work, get into shape. In most cases, though Walsh trained a few runners off the farm and McCarron might too, the finishing touches and the racing come with other trainers.
“Working for so many different trainers and with so many horses helped me learn a lot,” said McCarron. “You take a little bit from everybody. I’ve been exposed to a lot. I know all three guys (Milan Milosevic and brothers Zach and Patrick Randall) that ride here and that’s going to make it easy to communicate with them.”
McCarron called that communication key.
“Having been a rider, one of the most aggravating things is when a trainer asks you something and you try to give input and they ignore you,” he said. “I’m going to listen to these guys, their input is priceless, they’re on their backs.”
Despite his background, McCarron will not be. Last October, he broke four vertebrae in his neck and back when he fell while working a 2-year-old at Kinross Farm in Virginia. He’s been cleared to work, not ride, which is just fine with him – he needs to look down now.
NOTES: Country Life and Merryland also promoted longtime employee Christy Holden to general manager of both farms . . . McCarron’s middle name Otis is in honor of legendary trainer Odie Clelland, a mentor to Gregg and Chris in their riding days . . . Just nine jockeys have won 200 or more American jump races – Joe Aitcheson, Paddy Smithwick, Dooley Adams, Jerry Fishback, Tommy Walsh, Jeff Teter, Chip and Blythe Miller are the others . . . McCarron’s last day of race riding came in 2012, which included a Grade 1 win with Demonstrative in the Colonial Cup (photo by Tod Marks).