Marquee Chance for Emerging Trainer McCarthy in City of Light’s Finale

Michael McCarthy, right, walks out to the track with City of Light before he won the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. (Coady Photography)

Michael McCarthy spent more than 20 years in a true apprenticeship for a training career, covering the gamut from walking hots, clocking horses, working for a veterinarian, and moving up the ranks within different stables, which culminated in an 11-year run as an assistant to top trainer Todd Pletcher.

All that preparation and acquired knowledge has been evident in McCarthy’s first five years operating his own stable in Southern California, as he has been represented by a steady stream of quality horses and now a chance for a signature, marquee win with City of Light in the $9-million Pegasus World Cup on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park.

Trainer Michael McCarthy at 2018 Breeders' Cup. (Coady Photography)

McCarthy’s decision to return back home to start his own operation at Santa Anita in 2013 came after a tough four years where his wife and young daughter lived on the West Coat and he was based on the other side of the country with the Pletcher roster, in Florida during the winter and in Kentucky or New York during the rest of the year.

“We would go back and forth, coast to coast, to see each other,” said McCarthy, 47. “My wife would come to New York once a month and I would go back to California every third month or so. In today’s climate, a two-income household isn’t a bad thing. We got through it.”

McCarthy’s wife, Erin, works in the financial industry and, as a bonus, looks after the books of her husband’s business. The stable roster consisted of just a single horse when McCarthy first arrived back in his hometown of Arcadia, Calif. His first runner — almost five years ago to the day, on Jan. 24, 2014 — was a filly owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, and that outfit has been a significant presence in the McCarthy barn all along, including a Grade 1 winner, Illuminant, from the first group of 2-year-olds he received.

McCarthy and Eclipse President Aron Wellman have been friends for many years and worked together with Eclipse horses who came through the Pletcher barn.

“It was relationship-based but also a faith that Michael could do the job for us,” Wellman said. “He has certainly not disappointed.”

McCarthy and Wellman got to know each other around the racetrack during a time when McCarthy was sitting under the learning tree of Gary Young, a respected clocker and bloodstock agent.

Young has a vivid recollection of the day he met McCarthy at the Santa Anita Golf Course, a few furlongs from the racetrack.

“I was golfing with a few of his friends and he drove by and saw us golfing,” Young said. “He parked his car, jumped the fence with his clubs and played golf with us. We became friends at that point and for quite a while he would go up in the grandstand and watch horses train with me. He did that for years while he was working for different barns out here, and then he got his big break when a position opened up in the Pletcher barn. He has been around a lot of very good horses and I think that helps you be prepared when you get one of your own, to know what to do with it.”

Winner's circle celebration after Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. (Eclipse Sportswire)

City of Light, Illuminant, and Eclipse’s Grade 2 winner Paved all happen to be by the Kentucky sire Quality Road, whom Pletcher trained during McCarthy’s tenure there.

McCarthy sure knew what he was looking for when he picked out City of Light on behalf of owner William K. Warren Jr. at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. Warren’s bloodstock agent, Mark Reid, secured the colt for $710,000.

City of Light has been ultra-consistent, versatile, and highly progressive, winning the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita in late 2017 when he was still eligible for an entry-level allowance race and following with successive triumphs in the Grade 1 Triple Bend Stakes and Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, dispatching Accelerate by a neck in the latter.

Accelerate turned the tables with a victory in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita, with City of Light checking in third in his first and only start at 1 ¼ miles. Accelerate, of course, went on to prevail in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, while City of Light took home the laurels in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. They will square off one more time in the Pegasus World Cup as a rubber match and duel finale, as they will both be retired afterward to stand at Lane’s End in Kentucky.

“I think it’s fair to say we have come a long way in five years, since starting out with one horse for Eclipse Thoroughbreds,” McCarthy said. “We have tried to build smartly. We would certainly love to have double the number of horses we have, but it will come in time if we keep showing up and performing well in big races. Doors will open. We just have to keep working hard.

“It will be a little bittersweet leading City of Light over one more time, knowing that he will not be going back to Santa Anita with us, but he has had a very good run, going back to the Malibu at the end of 2017 and right on through the Breeders’ Cup this last year. His race record, everything about him, has been very good. He has been very consistent and very sound. Just what you’re looking for.”

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