McCarron turns out letter perfect

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Reprinted from the December 19 Steeplechase Times.

I’ll be honest, I never thought he’d make it this far. But I never told him.

A flat rider trapped in a jump jockey’s body, Matt McCarron showed up in steeplechasing like he got off at the wrong bus stop. He rode a handful of races in 1992 and began the next season with a last-fence fall over timber at Foxfield. His dad, former flat jockey Gregg McCarron, ran out on the course and helped him home.

Boy, they had a lot to learn.

Most jump jockeys bring jumping to the table first, whether it’s foxhunting, or showing or Pony Club or simply riding ponies on the farm. The race riding comes second. For McCarron, it was the opposite. When your father wins some 2,400 races and your uncle Chris wins more than 7,000 and has a plaque in the Hall of Fame, the race riding comes easy. Jumping is a different story.
McCarron learned to jump late in life and it showed. Much to the chagrin of his father, who once told him he could do anything he wanted but become a jump jockey. Where Millers, Kingsley, Kiser, Hendriks, Houghton, Lawrence and most American-born jump jockeys were pushed by their parents, McCarron dragged his heritage to the foreign sport.

The kid jumped fences like a motorcycle rider; bmmp, bmmp, bmmp. He rode too short, came to the races like it was a surprise and didn’t know the difference between Joe Aitcheson and Joe Walsh.

But he learned. His career ended Nov. 29 with a fall from Orison to the Palm Beach turf – 187 victories, $3,971,627 in purses earned, and a sport convinced. Me included.

Late in the 2000 season, McCarron whirled into the Colonial Cup jocks’ room. Set to ride two races, he arrived late, pulled out dirty tack and won the Raymond Woolfe on Segregation Lane to complete an electric 13-for-37 season.

I couldn’t believe he could be successful the way he applied himself to his business. Well, to me, it was a business. To him, it seemed like a lark.

Retiring after the day’s races, I was disgusted with my friend’s approach to riding races. It was all an afterthought to him. He never even found a chair in the Colonial Cup jocks’ room; that amazed me, he stood in the corner, balanced on one foot and got dressed. While I suffered from over-thinking most things steeplechasing, McCarron didn’t think about any of it. I wrote him a letter.

Hello my friend. Be prepared for a letter from an old jump jockey. As you know, I have just retired. Now it’s up to you. I’ll get straight to the point. You have everything it takes to be champion jockey. I’ve told three people that up to now. Myself, Chip and Gus. Not a bad average, I figure. You need to improve four things; confidence, appearance, jumping and style. Take my place in the room, next to Chip and Gus, ride hard and have fun. P.S. You need to want it more than anything in the world.

Whether my letter had anything to do with it or not, McCarron began to make me proud. He changed. He became a jockey. He wanted it.

McCarron averaged 6.25 wins a year for his first eight seasons and 15.2 for his final nine seasons; that 2000 season began a streak of nine consecutive double-digit yearly win totals, culminating in this, his final season.

He had ridden 50 winners at the end of 1999; 187 by the end of 2008.

The Maryland native won his first championship in 2003, tying David Bentley. The next season, he dominated the riding colony – winning 24 races and guiding Hirapour to win the Colonial Cup and an Eclipse Award.

As the victories piled up, so did the stock. He became the regular rider of Hirapour, winning the Royal Chase, A.P. Smithwick, New York Turf Writers Cup and Colonial Cup and also stood in when Grade I winners Sur La Tete and McDynamo needed a rider. He won eight races, including three stakes, aboard the venerable Greek Hero. There from the start, trainers Billy Meister, Alicia Murphy and Jimmy Day helped get him started. Neil Morris put McCarron on winners early on and remained loyal. Due to the wings of Hirapour, McCarron picked up the powerful Doug Fout barn. By the end, he rode winners for any and every trainer.

This year, McCarron picked up the spare on Be Certain for Tom Voss, and won the National Hunt Cup. The jockey teamed up with Fout to win Saratoga’s New York Turf Writers Cup with Dark Equation. His last stakes win came aboard Class Real Rock for Lilith Boucher at Far Hills. His last win came four races before Orison, when he partnered with Dave Washer’s Roseland in a filly and mare maiden. McCarron finished the year in a three-way tie for second and finished his career in ninth place all-time.

He won his 100th race in 2003 and was debating on making a run at becoming just the ninth jockey to win 200 when Orison dislodged him at Palm Beach. On the final day of his 17th season, with nothing left to prove, McCarron was playing with house money and knew it was about time to go. Orison made sure of it.

There lies the rub of being a jump jockey – right about the time you start getting plum rides and figuring out the horses, courses and people it’s time to go.

A broken clavicle, a shattered scapula, five broken ribs and a broken vertebrae in his neck ended his quest for 200 and stopped an improbable and remarkable riding career.

“Do you want the exclusive?” McCarron asked from his hospital bed in Wellington, Fla. two days after the fall. “I’m retired. I didn’t want to go out like this but after 16 years and getting hurt like this, I’m done. It’s going to take a while to sink in . . . I’m trying not to think about it right now.”

Think about it all you want – you made us all proud.