By Frances Karon
Standing in the classroom of the North American Racing Academy (NARA) at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky is a sensory thrill. The smell of leather, the sharp crack of reins slapping against outstretched necks as seven jockeys scrub hard on their mounts. If you close your eyes and listen to the strained breathing of the riders you can almost hear the cadence of the hooves. The only thing that isn’t real are the horses, but with names like John Henry, Alysheba and Sunday Silence, they are all but real.
Chris McCarron’s voice rises above the din, all at once coaxing, encouraging, taunting and unrelenting. Looking at the red-faced students you can pick out the ones who want it the most, their attention focused forward between their horses ears with intensity. Stopwatch in hand, McCarron counts down from ten and gets stuck on four amid a chorus of pained protests. “Four…four…four…three…two…one. To the victor go the spoils!” The riders nearly collapse from the exertion. “Yeaaah, look at the grimace in her face!” He’s given them quite a workout.
Welcome to a typical day at NARA, the first program of its kind in the United States and Canada, where McCarron, retired from the jockey colony but far from retired, is whittling his inaugural class of 11 aspiring students into the jockeys of tomorrow. After this particular drill, McCarron explains to them that they’ve just ridden their mechanical Equicizer horses for a minute and nine seconds, the equivalent of a six-furlong sprint. They can hardly believe it. They might have guessed they were competing in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes.
NARA only opened its doors in 2006 but the concept is older than many of its students, dating back to the time McCarron spoke to young jockeys at a racing school in Japan in 1988. “I was very impressed with the program. That’s actually what planted the seed in my head about establishing a program here in this country.” He has since been to almost every riding school on offer and has put together a curriculum that borrows from his research. The end result is a combination of what he calls “the way I was taught to ride and the sort of European style, whereby the students have to take care of the horses as well as getting on them.” This way, he says, “they’re learning a respect for the animal, respect for the people who actually get the horses prepared for them to ride. It gives them a much greater appreciation of all the hard work that goes into getting a horse to the races.”
Prior to earning multiple Eclipse Awards and a Hall of Fame induction, McCarron was fortunate enough to find a mentor in trainer Odie Clelland, who had helped launch a fledgling Eddie Arcaro into his successful career. He recalls his first time on a Thoroughbred, working as a 16-year-old hotwalker for Clelland. “I was scared to death. I’d just been riding the pony around, so knowing what a Thoroughbred is capable of doing I was terrified. When he saw the fear in my face he told me to jump off and I just froze. He reached up and pulled me off. It was a good while before I was back on a Thoroughbred.” But eventually he conquered his “fear of the unknown” and tried again. One of his goals at NARA is to take away that fear and give his students all the tools they need to be confident, conscientious riders with an ingrained understanding of horsemanship.
McCarron says the jockey system in place in this country is like putting “somebody behind the wheel of a NASCAR automobile without having been formally trained. It’s crazy, considering the amount of investment that is in this thing called the Thoroughbred horse. You’ve got the breeders, the owners, the trainers, all the stable help, the farm help, and then when you involve the betting public, you have thousands of people that have an interest in this horse. And, a jockey walks into a paddock having received no formal training whatsoever, gets a leg up from a trainer and is expected to go out there and perform like a professional. It’s wacko, it’s wacko.”
The picture he paints of the uneducated young jockey in the driver’s seat for the Indy 500 brings the lack of training many of today’s riders receive into frightening perspective. It is almost inconceivable that NARA is the first of its kind in these parts, where the Thoroughbred industry is a lucrative business. Steve Cauthen, like fellow retired Hall of Famers Laffit Pincay Jr. and Eddie Delahoussaye, is on the academy’s board. “It’s a great thing,” says Cauthen, “something that has been needed here for a long time. It’s amazing that there’s never been a jockey school in America.” Everyone seems to agree that the racing school is long overdue and that McCarron is the perfect fit at the helm. He is patient, intelligent, articulate, and totally committed to the endeavor. Spend some time with Chris McCarron and you quickly understand that he does not accept failure lightly.
NARA is intertwined with the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), meaning that the students, all of whom have obtained either a high school diploma or a GED equivalent and who pay a tuition to the college based on the number of credit hours they take, can opt to take additional courses in English, math and science to graduate with an Associate’s Degree in Equine Science. NARA’s organizational framework under the KCTCS banner reveals a futuristic blueprint extending beyond the Professional Jockey Certificate. Soon, individuals who are interested in other careers in the horse industry will be able to go after a Professional Horsemen’s Certificate or a Racing Office Professional’s Certificate.
NARA has some other exciting plans, including a top-notch facility with its own track and dorm at the Horse Park. Besides what it has attracted from donors, the program received sizeable state funding in 2006 but has a long way to go before it raises the $15-million required to convert an artist’s rendering into their actual campus. In the meantime, students and instructors split time between their headquarters at the Horse Park and The Thoroughbred Center. McCarron hopes to go before the General Assembly to request financial assistance for NARA, and, if all else fails, “get on my knees and beg.”
NARA is providing a win-win situation for its students and consequently, in a few years’ time, for racing. McCarron cites the specialized coaching and instruction other professional athletes receive. “What that demonstrates is there’s a greater need for that teaching, that tutoring, in order to help a person reach his or her full potential as an athlete.” With jockeys, “not only do we not have someone formally teaching us ahead of time, after we begin our careers we have to learn our trade from our competitors. How much is someone going to help me when I go out there and beat him three times in an afternoon? When you first start out, it’s easy to go to a veteran and say, can you teach me how to switch my sticks faster, can you teach me how to make a horse change leads better, how to break out of the gate more quickly, how to talk to a trainer about his horse being sore – those kinds of things. And the veterans will help you only to a degree, and then when you go out there and start winning races on a daily basis, those good lessons start slowing down and so it creates a pretty steep learning curve. I just think it really stunts someone’s growth when they don’t have someone mentoring them, telling them when they’ve done something right and when they’ve done something wrong.” McCarron does not hesitate on either count.
Recruiting last year was a bit rushed and applicants chiefly found their way to the racing academy through word of mouth. Before accepting students for classes beginning in the fall of 2007, NARA “will be sending a letter along with a flyer to all the jocks rooms around the country, every racecourse around the country and have it posted in the jocks room and try to do something that way. But eventually, long term, what I plan to do is use the resources at KCTCS and be able to get into the high schools and get word to them and start actively recruiting potential students that way,” McCarron says. He anticipates having more applicants to the program this year and refers to the initial interest from freshmen, sophomores and juniors in high school who requested information packets last year.
During the screening process, the students have to demonstrate that they are “serious about pursuing a career as a rider.” They must have the natural physique to keep light without putting their bodies at risk. In addition, NARA is “looking for someone who is at least going to express some passion about being a jockey. Not someone that is like, well, you know, maybe I’ll try this, and if it works, fine, if not…”
Chris McCarron is all about the passion. When he says that the apprentices “can expect a lot of hard work from me, a lot of dedication from me to help them become the best riders they can be under my watch,” he means it. He also means it when he says, “what they can expect is to be involved in a very tough program. It’s a lot of hard work, takes a lot of discipline. I’m a taskmaster. Very fair, but by the same token, if you’re not carrying your load you’re not going to go as far in this program as you would compared to someone who goes even further than carrying their load.” Passion, it seems, is a prerequisite for his pupils. This is a seven-day-a-week labor of love for the jockey-turned-mentor and it goes beyond the horse-and-rider relationships he’s nurturing.
There have been some surprises along the way for McCarron. “What I didn’t know was that I was going to have to be somewhat of a psychologist, psychiatrist and have to deal with different types of personalities and different work ethics and so forth. I’ve always been a hard worker and I try to instill that same type of work ethic in those that I’m surrounded by. Especially with the students. I’m going to try to work hard at developing an interview process that will expose the ones that have THE best work ethics and the most dedication.”
Ideally, McCarron is looking for people “with a certain degree of talent to communicate with horses. Also, a certain amount of athletic talent. You have to be born with those two things first, and then I think you can certainly hone those skills. I think that there are some that have to work harder at becoming a better athlete.” McCarron himself has had to “really work hard at honing my style and figuring out exactly what was going to make me less of a hindrance on a horse. You hear the term, oh yeah, that rider moved that horse up. Well, we don’t move horses up so to speak, we slow them down less. The best riders have the greatest ability to stay out of a horse’s way.” Not to say that a good rider doesn’t help his horse, which is what “separates the better riders from the rest of them, figuring out exactly what that little quality is, what that talent is. Not all the riders ever figure out exactly what theirs is. The best riders are the ones that first of all have the skill, have the talent and then figure out what buttons to push, how to use that talent.” McCarron is here to help them find and fine-tune both types of talent.
Back on the Equicizers – the horse simulators developed by jockey Frank Lovato Jr. – McCarron notices that some of the riders ease up as he takes a phone call. He interrupts his conversation. “Hold on one second, my students are cheating on me. Come on, pump, let’s go! Pump! Quick!” He has an extraordinary ability to focus on everyone at the same time as though there are just the two of them in the room; he is fully aware of what they’re all doing, at all times. It’s not difficult to image how natural it must have been for him to weave his way through a tight throng of galloping horses, anticipating all the right openings before they happened. He could probably have done it while reciting the alphabet – backwards.
One of the boys gets a leg cramp during the grueling calf raises they are required to do in the stirrups before they get into riding stance. “We’ve got a Charley horse going on over here.” McCarron continues to call out directions, barely breaking his rhythm with the other six as the rider gets down from the horse. “Push up…somebody call an ambulance…down…up…down.”
As they settle down to race ride again, two of them stage an impromptu recreation of the 1933 Kentucky Derby, taking on the roles of Don Meade on Brokers Tip and Herb Fisher on Head Play, playfully grabbing at each other’s legs. The girl on Flawlessly manages to pull Alysheba’s rider out of his saddle. McCarron: “Another one bites the dust! What chance do they have of riding a real horse if they can’t stay on an Equicizer?” He is only partially teasing.
There is a lot of good-natured ribbing, but underneath it all you sense McCarron’s frustration that some of them aren’t a little more serious, that they don’t have a keener awareness of the opportunity they’re getting. “I’ve got a few students that kind of just go through the motions. I don’t want to do that with them, because that’s not what I’m paid to do. I’m paid to give them my best, which I continue to do. There are times when I say to myself, ah, he’s just going through the motions, so maybe I’ll go through the motions. You know, with everybody else, I’ll give them their due. But that’s not fair. I can’t slight anybody even though they’re slighting themselves.”
Jessica Oldham, whose parents are retired jockeys – Robbie Davis’ daughter Jackie is also enrolled in the program – is the veteran of the group, with roughly ten years of riding time. Still, she says, “this is different because learning how to ride is actually structured here, whereas when I went to gallop on the track for the first time I just kind of got thrown up on a horse and basically hung on.” As a high school student, she got some tips mock-exercising the pony sandwiched between two exercise riders. Outside of that, she picked up “bits and pieces” of advice along the way.
The majority of the students – seven of them – had little or no horse experience before enrolling at NARA. Jason Truett is so small in stature that “everybody used to always tell me I should be a jock.” He informs McCarron that he has “hit triple digits today,” meaning that he now weighs 100 pounds. Before being allowed on the Thoroughbreds, all of whom are retired racehorses that have been donated, Truett and the other novices had to get their balance on mustangs, or “Thoroughbred simulators,” until the instructors felt they could handle the more hot-blooded racehorses. This is one of many steps to prepare students for safe learning in a comfortable, controlled environment.
They have a rigorous daily routine, meeting up for 7.30am classes. Students spend three hours a day in class; one hour riding the horses and three hours taking care of them; and one hour on the Equicizer. They look after their horses six or seven days a week, depending on the rotation for their on-duty Sunday. Before they complete the two-year, six-semester program, of which the last two semesters will be spent as interns for trainers, the NARA trainees will have had extensive and invaluable hands-on studies on racehorse care, equine physiology, commercial breeding, the racing industry, lameness, racing stable operations, riding principles, finance and life skills. A nutritionist has been teaching them how to eat so that they can be healthy and still maintain their weight and a proper diet. In this environment, they’re not only learning the basics of riding; they’re learning the fundamentals of how to live.
Although McCarron’s name is the one most publicly associated with NARA, the academy draws on the support of a strong team. Jennifer Voss-Franco, who is the project facilitator, shares an office with McCarron. Dr. Reid “Doc” McLellan is the instructional specialist who, among other things, oversees their racehorse care lessons. Barn manager Aimee Knarr, the Horse Park’s director of education Margi Stickney and even McCarron’s daughter Stephanie – they have all, says one of the students, “pitched in to help everyone excel really quickly.”
As of January, the students are up to galloping at The Thoroughbred Center. Of the program’s 12 horses, Oldham says, “they’re all working out great and it’s nice because there’s one for every level of rider, and you do have to get used to galloping the tough horses as well as the easy horses.” It doesn’t take much for these ex-racehorses to remember their racing days. They get out on the track after training hours, and the outriders stick close to round up the horses when they run off with or throw the jocks. “They’ve caught a few of them,” says Oldham. “Us,” she corrects herself. McCarron has come off Toots, whose reputation for running off while he was in active training remains has followed him to his second career. In May, they will be ready to learn how to breeze their horses. It remains to be seen who will be on Toots that first day.
McCarron is no stranger to accidents of varying severity, and because racing is by nature tinged with danger he does not envision that having suitably educated jockeys will provide a needed boost to the insurance issues. “I would love to be able to sit here and tell you, oh yeah, my students are going to be so knowledgeable, so skilled and such great athletes when they leave my program it’s really going to make racing a lot safer. I think that’s a pipe dream. I think that’s a bit of a reach.” In 1986 he was involved in a five-horse pileup, eight lengths behind Encolure when that horse fell at Santa Anita. At first he was “livid” with himself, until he worked out that he had had merely one and three-fifths seconds to react and steer a 1,000 pound cannonball running at 40 miles per hour out of harm’s way. Still, he says, “I blame myself to the point where I try to figure out a way I could do it better next time.” His students are the beneficiaries of the mental edge that greater knowledge can give them. Every memory, good and bad, from 28 years in the saddle has its purpose.
This afternoon they are working their Equicizers alongside gate-to-wire replays of some of John Henry’s famed duels. As McCarron presses “play” on the VCR to start a third race, one of the girls grumbles, “oh no, not another one!” Though she may not think so at the moment, it is her good luck that McCarron was a regular rider of the great gelding who won 39 times, leaving them with plenty more to watch. And when those run out, McCarron has an abundance of wins – 7,141 of them, in fact – to refer to in guiding his students along.
“This,” says Truett, “is my dream, by far. Even riding right now, if I have a good day it’s so emotionally rewarding.” Oldham is quick to point out that “when you have a bad day it’s so emotionally toiling.” Truett smiles and says simply, “but, if it wasn’t for those days, the good days wouldn’t be as good.” Listening to them, you have no doubt that what McCarron is doing is a very, very good thing, even more so with the realization that for so many jockeys, this opportunity never existed.
Chris McCarron is hopeful that NARA will be a life-changing event for the industry, as it is proving to be for him. “It’s like the old saying. You get out of it what you put into it. I’m putting a lot into it as far as I’m concerned and consequently I’m getting a lot out of it. It’s been a great learning experience for me.”