Gregg McCarron will never forget the first time Chris, his younger brother, sat on a horse. Chris was anything but comfortable.
“He was petrified,” Gregg said. “We actually had to peel his fingers off the reins to get him down.”
The experience might have been enough to convince most teenagers that there were better ways to earn a living than by riding half-ton Thoroughbreds at 35 miles per hour. But Chris, who was 16 or so at the time, was not easily dissuaded.
He saw the success Gregg was having as a jockey as he charted where each of Gregg’s mounts finished and how much they earned. The numbers were compelling and Chris eventually came back for more, eager to absorb every bit of knowledge he could from Gregg, his elder by four years.
“Jockeys don’t have coaches,” Chris said, “I did my first four years.”
Gregg’s savvy and his constant presence as a mentor, when combined with Chris’ aptitude, made for stunning results. Chris, breaking in on a Maryland circuit that proved to be fertile ground for so many youngsters, earned the Eclipse Award as the outstanding apprentice by guiding home a record 546 winners in 1974. He never looked back.
“I think one of my fortes was getting into a horse’s head and really understanding what made them tick,” he said.
He credits Gregg for teaching him pretty much everything there was to know about a horse’s body language after neither of them grew up around horses. “I didn’t feel I was a natural on a horse,” he said. “I thought I had to learn my trade and keep learning it. I think I changed my style three times.”
Gregg noted that Chris’ work ethic and personality quickly endeared him to trainers and owners. “One of the things that put him in good stead was his personality. He was gregarious,” Gregg said. “People liked him and his talent evolved to where he was one of the best.”
According to McCarron, it took him many years to gain a deep understanding of what the relationship needed to be between rider and horse. “The most important thing about riding a horse is getting cooperation from them. I learned that as I went,” he said. “My first eight or nine years, I really felt it was my job to make horses run.”
One of the key moments in McCarron’s career occurred when he decided he was good enough to compete as part of the rugged jockeys’ colony in California. He moved his tack to the West Coast in 1977 and, as Gregg says proudly, “He just killed them.”
McCarron went on to lead the nation in earnings in 1980, 1981, 1984 and 1991. With the help of great horses such as John Henry and Alysheba, he would end his 28-year career with an astounding $263,986,005 in earnings.
He regularly rose to the occasion for big races, sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes twice each. Of his nine Breeders’ Cup victories, he captured five of them in the event’s signature race, the Classic. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1989.
As McCarron reflected on his career, he viewed some of his most important races as his early on-track tussles with Gregg in Maryland. “Gregg was an incredibly fierce competitor. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind he wanted to beat me in the worst way,” he said. “One of the things he taught me was the importance of being a fierce competitor.”
McCarron undoubtedly had his brother’s tutelage in mind when he announced, in 2005, that he would be opening the North American Riding Academy in an effort to ingrain the fundamentals in aspiring jockeys at a young age. Although he stepped away recently, the school endures.
When friends ask McCarron what he will do now that he has more free time, he has a ready answer: “Whatever the heck I want.”
- Was born in Boston as one of nine children.
- Grew up wanting to be a hockey player; Boston Bruins’ Bobby Orr was his hero.
- Endured inauspicious beginning when first mount, Most Active, finished last on Jan. 24, 1974.
- Technical adviser and actor in popular 2003 film “Seabiscuit.”
- Served as general manager at Santa Anita Park for fewer than two years, resigning in January 2005. McCarron said he did not feel comfortable wearing a suit to work.