Two Hundred Man: Matt McCarron hits milestone

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"matt200"Joe Aitcheson, Paddy Smithwick, Dooley Adams, Jerry Fishback, Tommy Walsh, Jeff Teter, Chip Miller, Blythe Miller, Matt McCarron.

Nine names on a list – the only human beings to win 200 American steeplechase races as jockeys. History. Time. Honor. Longevity. A feat. What does it take to win 200 jump races? As McCarron put it, persistence and stubbornness, but obviously, there’s some ability involved.

The nine jockeys to reach 200 were champions. They knew how to win races: hurdles, timber, even the big steeplechase fences the circuit used to have. They traveled. They won at the racetrack. They won at Glenwood Park. They saved ground. They came from behind. They won wire-to-wire. They stole starts. They got lucky.

When McCarron, 40, crossed the finish line aboard Rainiero at Montpelier Nov. 5, he joined the group – capping a career that began in 1992, recorded its first winner the next season (over timber), meandered through ups and downs including two championships and a partnership with 2004 Eclipse Award winner Hirapour, ended with a broken neck in 2008, restarted with three rides in 2009, stopped again in failure this summer. McCarron was going to walk away, ride no more. Then Richard Valentine called with an opportunity, a chance to ride limited – yet quality – mounts.

McCarron’s 199th and 200th wins came aboard the Valentine-trained, Augustin Stable-owned Rainiero. McCarron used to talk about trying to get to 200, probably forced it a bit. Then let it lie. Then found it. Funny how that happens.

“It’s just a number, but it’s something I was really looking for and gunning for late in my career,” he said. “Then it got to the point this summer where I was going to be happy leaving it and I said ‘if it happens, great; if not, fine.’ I rode better not thinking about it.”

When he got there, McCarron thought about the years, the people, the help along the way – Billy Meister, Alicia Murphy, Jimmy Day, Neil Morris, Doug Fout and on and on (the writer’s list, not McCarron’s). Rainiero’s win put Valentine and Augustin owner George Strawbridge on the list.

“I got an e-mail from Mr. Strawbridge about it, congratulating me,” McCarron said. “He was happy for me that I did it in his colors. That meant a lot. It put it into perspective and made me think of all the colors I’ve worn. I’m so grateful for all the people over the years. All the support, all along, was appreciated.”

The achievement strikes a note because of its simplicity. It’s a round number, after all, but compare it to others in sport:

– The ninth leading flat jockey by career wins is Edgar Prado with 6,498.

– The ninth leading flat trainer by career wins is Bill Mott with 4,140.

– The ninth leading home run hitter in baseball is Frank Robinson with 586.

– The ninth leading scorer in the NBA is Hakeem Olajuwan with 26,946 points.

– The ninth leading scorer in the NHL is Mario Lemieux with 690 goals.

To reach the top 10 on any sport’s all-time list takes skill, talent, luck, any other adjective you can muster. To ride 200 winners in a sport that doesn’t card 200 races per year takes that and then some.

“It’s a tremendous number in this country,” said retired jockey John Cushman, who won four titles and 116 races. “We don’t have the opportunities. You have to stay healthy, you’ve got to have the skill set, but you’ve got to persevere and you’ve got to hang in there. Two-hundred doesn’t come quick. That’s good company. I’m impressed.”

Jody Petty started a year after McCarron, won a championship in 2005, rode McDynamo and has 140 lifetime wins – good enough for the top 20 but a long way from 200. McCarron’s feat impressed his peer.

“When I got my 100th win it was amazing and that’s half as much,” Petty said. “I’m pretty certain I’ll never make it. It takes a whole different type of will and determination. It’s one thing to be in it to win it for five or 10 years, when it’s your life for that long. When you’re in it for that many years it’s a life-altering achievement. Matt’s a year older than I am. We’ve been doing it about the same amount of time. At our age, we should be able to decide who we ride and he’s done that a little bit and so have I. That important at this stage.”

Soon to be three-time champion Paddy Young, who won his 100th race in May, watched McCarron with wonder.

“It’s unreal. That’s a long way away for me,” he said. “Fair play to him, that’s some achievement over here (compared to England or Ireland). You could feel it would mean a lot to him. I’m delighted for him.”

Young paid credit to more than hard work.

“There was that five-year period where he was the top guy and he won a lot of races, a lot of good races,” Young said. “Matt is an excellent rider. He says he’s not the best over a fence but you don’t ride 200 winners over jumps without knowing what you’re doing. He rides a really good race.”

Gus Brown (124 wins) rode with McCarron for years and always saw a jockey.

“Consistency, determination, good public relations,” Brown said when asked what it takes to win 200. “Matt can handicap and ride a race as well as or better than anybody I’ve ridden with. That is his strong suit. He’s got such a great mind for race riding.”

Chip Miller passed the 200 mark in 2007 and battled McCarron in many a race. The 1996 champion credited his friend’s hard work and ability to return from injuries over the past several seasons.

“He could have gotten there a lot sooner without getting hurt like he did,” said Miller. “Matt always thought about numbers and history and the top 10 and things like that. He used that as incentive to keep going. I’m proud of him. It’s a huge accomplishment. When you think about how many people have ridden races and then think how many few have gotten to 200, it matters.”

McCarron’s feat is not simply about sticking to a task, however. “You don’t get to 200 by accident,” Miller said. “I finished second to Matt in plenty of races, and Matt made the difference in a lot of them. He helped a lot of horses win races.”

For now, McCarron will leave it at that – riding to help horses win races – while balancing a transition to a career beyond the saddle. He works part-time as a valet and assistant clerk of scales at Laurel Park in Maryland, galloping horses for flat trainer Mike Trombetta in the mornings.

He’s the guy with 200 wins.

 

*Photo by Douglas Lees.