Pitch & Putt

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Darrel McHargue hit a sweet drive and was on his way to the green for a three-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole at Palm Desert Golf Course in California when his phone rang.

Brien Bouyea of the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame was making his once-a-year, most-welcomed cold calls. This one was ice cold. Thirty-two years after he rode his last race, McHargue was being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“It was shocking,” the 65-year-old Oklahoma native said. “It was out of the blue, it was the furthest thing from my mind. I was floored. Absolutely floored.”

McHargue, a walk-up single that day, stepped out of his cart and told the guy he was playing with that he had been inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame.

“He didn’t know what horse racing was, but I told him anyway,” McHargue said.

Editor’s Note: This was from the May 23 edition of our online newspaper The 2020 Special. If you missed it, you can read it here.

While based primarily in California McHargue won 2,553 races. His horses earned $39 million. He won the George Woolf Award and Eclipse Award in 1978, won six graded stakes on Hall of Famer John Henry, won stakes on Hall of Famers Ancient Title and My Juliet, partnered Vigors, Terlingua, Run Dusty Run and General Assembly. He won the Preakness aboard Master Derby in 1975 and stretched across the world to win the 1984 Irish St. Leger at the Curragh and the Jockey Club Cup at Ascot in 1984. After just 18 years, McHargue retired in 1988 and became a steward in 1990. He was promoted to the state’s chief steward in 2015.

The Hall of Fame? It was more of a correction than a confliction in McHargue’s life.

“I never really gave it a whole lot of thought,” McHargue said. “People would ask me if I was in the Hall of Fame or they would introduce me as being in the Hall of Fame and I would correct them, ‘I’m not in the Hall of Fame.’ I can now say, ‘Yeah, you’re correct, I’m in the Hall of Fame.’ ”

There is no correction like that.

Over 20 years of covering the Hall of Fame in The Special, the name that cropped up most often when talking about trainers, jockeys and horses jilted from inclusion was McHargue. Hall of Famer Chris McCarron volunteered him, vouched for him over the years, so did others, mostly jockeys, the ones who shared the precious space of a racetrack, the ones who know the difference between a licensed jockey and a jockey’s jockey.

“In my book, he’s in the top 10 of all time. He was one hell of a race rider, he taught me a lot. He was a very savvy rider and really knew what he was doing. Looked beautiful on a horse. I wondered all these years why his name wasn’t on the ballot,” McCarron said. “The first day I rode at Santa Anita, it was late March of ’78, Darrel won six races that day, he won the Big Cap on the Great White Tornado, Vigors. I was blown away, I said, ‘Look at the money this guy just won today, he had a good year in a day.’ He’s straightforward, he’ll tell you what’s on his mind, a good guy and a good friend.”

McCarron and McHargue were peers, rivals. McHargue’s career hit its zenith quickly and flamed out while McCarron’s torched on for another 10 years, becoming a natural first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1989. McCarron called McHargue after the Historic Review Committee righted a wrong and announced McHargue’s induction.

“I never told you this,” McCarron said. “But you really taught me a lot about riding by just watching you.”

McHargue was floored by that one, too.

“Here’s someone who was up there. It was quite a compliment coming from him,” McHargue said. “That’s as high a compliment as you can get.”

From a non-racing family, the new Hall of Famer hooked up with a Quarter Horse trainer who taught him the basics, “from a halter to a bridle”, and took him to Ocala. From there, he found his way to the racetrack, winning his first race at Arlington Park in 1972. He learned the game in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and won the Preakness aboard Master Derby in 1975. That was big. For the win and the opportunity. Bobby Frankel watched McHargue’s definitive, seam-slipping ride aboard the chestnut colt.

McHargue introduced himself to the trainer, who later called with a simple question.

“Why don’t you come to California?” Frankel asked.

“At the time,” McHargue said, “jockeys were deciding if they were going to ride in New York or California. Those were the only two. Bobby called and that swayed my decision and I found my way to California.”

There he stayed, riding for Frankel and working his way into the best barns in the west. With the muscle and magic of agents Harry “The Hat” Hacek, Vince DeGregory and Scotty McClellan, McHargue went on a tear. He’d won a career-best 405 races in 1974, but set a North American earnings record of $6.1 million in 1978, the same year he led all jockeys with 37 stakes wins. McHargue credits McClellan for most of his success.

“He had me during the days when we couldn’t do anything wrong, we went through a span of time if I pointed for an opening, it opened, it was unreal, whatever the force was the force was with me,” McHargue said. “Sometimes you’re just born under a lucky star and things go your way. Everything that was out there, if I wanted it, it came my way. Reality hit later on, but at that period of my life, it was just one thing after another.”

As quickly as it rose, it fell, but that didn’t surprise McHargue.

“I wasn’t able to get on the good horses any longer, it dried up. I made some business decisions, probably agent-wise, that weren’t good career moves, I got injured and the reducing part,” McHargue said. “It’s a lot of sacrifice, if you get the good horses, then it’s worthwhile. You see the longevity of all jockeys, 98 percent of the time it’s the good horses that are keeping them around, that’s the fun of the game. I see it today, when you see a good race, you want to go into that career again. That’s a good feeling. A great feeling.”

As seemless and effortless as he slipped Master Derby through a hole leaving the backside of the Preakness, McHargue transferred from a jockey to a steward in two years and has enjoyed a solid, satisfying second career.

“I always had an eye toward that because I knew my career wasn’t going to be a long career, I was hoping it was but knew it wouldn’t be,” McHargue said. “I’ve enjoyed being still part of the game. It’s a totally different set of circumstances, when you’re a jockey, you’re trying to be popular, that’s what gets you on horses, more winners, more winners. This side of the game, if you’re doing the job, correctly, you’re not going to be popular. I would hope people who have been around me as a steward would think of me as being fair, consistent and firm.”

As for a jockey, peers called McHargue savvy, stylish, an assassin on horseback.

As for that putt, well, it wasn’t even close.

“I ran it 100 feet past the hole,” McHargue said.

Who could blame him?