McCarron rides out in grand style

Monday, June 24th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) _ Thirty years after he first nervously slipped onto a saddle, Chris McCarron made one last visit to the winner's circle.

He ended his career in grand style Sunday, riding home his 7,141st winner aboard Came Home in the Affirmed Stakes at Hollywood Park.

``All the way back, I just kept pinching myself,'' he said. ``It was absolutely too good to be true. I had a different feeling crossing the finish line. I knew it was over.''

The 47-year-old jockey, originally from Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, also won an earlier on the card and finished in the money with five of his six mounts.

He wrapped up his 28-year career sixth on the career victory list, and the more than $264 million earned by his mounts ranks No. 1.

Not bad for a rider that his brother, a jockey, initially considered hopelessly inept on a horse.

``Between his junior and senior years in high school, he came down to visit and we put him on a horse and he was scared to death,'' recalled Gregg, who retired from riding nine years ago.

``Mom was so worried about his being a jockey, so I called her that night and said, `You've got nothing to worry about. He'll never make it.'''

Gregg was among those on hand for ``Chris McCarron Day'' at Hollywood Park. During a ceremony in the winner's circle after the fifth race _ which McCarron won on Blind Ambition _ McCarron choked back tears as he thanked a long list of jockeys, trainers, owners, doctors who treated his broken bones over the years, and his family.

The 5-foot-2, 113-pound McCarron, his once-bright red hair gray and thinning but with the same boyish twinkle in his eyes, told the cheering crowd he was overwhelmed by the tribute.

``I'm pleased with my decision, have no regrets. Most importantly, my family is pleased with my decision,'' he said.

McCarron also showed his lighter side, announcing an ``equipment change'' and slipping a horse's hood with blinkers over his own head.

Taking part in the festivities were Laffit Pincay Jr. and Bill Shoemaker, 1-2 on the all-time wins list.

McCarron certainly held up his end Sunday with a pair of wins, one second and two thirds.

As he rode Came Home back in front of the grandstand after the final triumph, he McCarron raised his eyes and his riding crop skyward.

Came Home, bet down to 1-5, finished two lengths in front of Tracemark in the feature, and was clocked in 1:41 4-5 over the 1 1-16 miles. Came Home paid $2.80, $2.40 and $2.10.

McCarron rode Came Home to a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby on May 4. It was only the second loss for the 3-year-old Santa Anita Derby champion. The colt now has seven wins in nine starts.

The victory was the third in the Affirmed for McCarron, who won the race with Tiznow two years earlier. Tiznow went on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic two years in a row.

After his racing career got off to an inauspicious start _ he finished dead last in his first race at Bowie Race Course in Maryland _ McCarron quickly established himself as one of the best jockeys in the country. After winning for the first time on Feb. 7, 1974, at Bowie, he went on to set a record with 546 winners at Pimlico, Delaware Park, Bowie and Laurel in his first year.

The record stood until Kent Desormeaux rode 598 winners in 1989.

Twice a winner of the Eclipse Award as the nation's top jockey, McCarron won six Triple Crown races in his 28-year career _ the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont twice each.

He also won nine Breeders' Cup races, including five BC Classics.

Two days before ending his career at Hollywood Park, McCarron put another exclamation point on his career, winning two of the four events in the All-Star Jockey Championship and claiming the overall title in the competition at Lone Star Park in Texas.