Welcome Back

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Willie McCarthy sent a message.

Appreciate the mention last night Sean…I’LL BE BACK…!

Using all caps more adeptly than our president, McCarthy texted those nine words after I had presented the champion jockey trophy to Darren Nagle at the National Steeplechase Association’s Awards Dinner in January. Nagle had won his first title and deserved it, but former champions Paddy Young, Kieran Norris and Willie McCarthy deserved mention after bone-crunching and soul-searching seasons in 2017.

Young was out forever. Norris made it back by fall. And McCarthy, he had been on the shelf since summer, trying to recover from a broken foot, two broken vertebrae, five broken ribs, a punctured lung, a 10-inch laceration and a concussion suffered when he got unshipped early in a handicap hurdle at Parx. I wasn’t sure he was coming back, knowing that jump jockey’s years are measured like dog years and thinking about the mental and physical war of trying to relight a flickering flame. McCarthy, watching the award’s dinner on his computer, heard my doubt and made sure there would be no doubt.

I fired back three thumbs up and hoped to see him when the season started in March. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure. Mid-30s, a champion title already on his mantle, battling his weight, trying to galvanize another comeback, McCarthy was far from a sure thing. Of all the jump jockeys I’ve known and written about, and there have been many, McCarthy is more introspective than most, that can be a blessing and a curse. McCarthy used it as a blessing while recuperating from his fall, going back and taking score of how he had been handling his career. Since winning the jockey title with 23 wins in 2014, McCarthy had plummeted to 10 wins in 2015, slipped to nine in 2016 and had eked out six wins before the Parx fall ended his 2017 season.

“I definitely lost my appetite for it,” McCarthy said. “I thought everything was going to happen for me, I thought I was going to get the horses, I definitely wasn’t fit as I was in previous years, I felt like I was letting myself down and doing myself, the owners and the horses an injustice because I wasn’t prepared. I had six months to sit down and think about what I’m doing wrong, where it was going wrong,”

McCarthy vowed that it would never happen again. Once he healed from his injuries, McCarthy set out to change it, shedding weight the right way, limiting alcohol, adding Pilates and other cardiovascular exercise to his routine and rededicating himself to a craft that he, admittedly, had abandoned.

Fit, light and determined, McCarthy returned in March, but lost his first 14 races in a row before picking up a win in late April, another with a surgeon’s touch on Cite in the best maiden of the season at the Iroquois and another in a maiden claimer in mid May to end the spring with three wins. It wasn’t stellar but it was a start.

“I’ve dedicated my whole life to this, for a brief time while I was off, I was thinking what am I going to do? It’s a million-dollar question, and I don’t want to answer that question,” McCarthy said. “I’m young enough, I felt like I was coming back from the injury well enough, I said, just get yourself in the right place, I know I’ve only got a few more years left in me, but I want them to be the best years of my career, when I pull the curtain on it, I want to go out on the top, that’s my ambition, I’ve got to get back up there.”

Wednesday, McCarthy was back up there. The 35-year-old Irishman guided New Member to a dynamic score in the Jonathan Kiser Novice Stakes. After losing three straight hurdle starts this spring, McCarthy convinced trainer Jack Fisher to add blinkers to the British-bred and that did the trick, providing McCarthy with, perhaps, the biggest win of his career, or at least, the most appreciated one.

“I talked to you back in December or January and told you I was making a comeback and I was doing it right,” McCarthy said. “To come back up here and showcase on a horse like him feels really good.”

McCarthy stopped at the scales in front of the jocks’ room, sweat pouring from every ledge of his hallowed face and smiled, a contentment-filled smile, the culmination of a long and arduous comeback.

“I always wanted to get to the top,” McCarthy said. “But I got there and was like, ‘What do you do next?’ ”

For McCarthy, he toiled for a few seasons, hit rock bottom and then began to rise again.