Sports fans love a great comeback story. Last fall, they were captivated by the story of Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith, who recovered from a badly broken leg to play professional football again after two years on the sidelines.
Racing fans of a certain age might have been reminded of a similar story, that of Herb McCauley. One of the top East Coast jockeys in the 1980s and 1990s, McCauley’s career appeared over following a devastating leg injury. It took nine years, a trip down some dark roads, and difficult rehabilitation, but McCauley turned his story into something triumphant.
Born in Durham, N.C., on May 2, 1957, McCauley was a two-sport athlete growing up. He first sat on a horse at the age of 4 and spent his teenage years riding show horses and steeplechasers. When he was 16, he spent a summer at Tartan Farms in Florida and gained experience breaking Thoroughbreds.
McCauley also wrestled in high school. He was considered one of the top high school wrestlers in the state, and was planning on going to Appalachian State University on a wrestling scholarship. Although he enjoyed being around horses, he did not yet consider making a career out of it.
After graduating high school, McCauley rode some steeplechasers for Mickey Walsh at the Stoneybrook Steeplechase in North Carolina. That experience led to him spending a summer working at Delaware Park, after which he decided to make the racetrack his life. In October 1975, McCauley won his first race at Keystone Race Track (now known at Parx Racing). Within the next 12 months, he was the leading apprentice at both Keystone and Monmouth Park.
By the early 1980s, McCauley had become one of the stars of the New Jersey racing circuit. In 1982, he won his first riding title at the Meadowlands with 83 winners. He added two more riding titles in 1983 and 1985. In a colony that included future Hall of Famers such as Chris Antley, Julie Krone, and Craig Perret, McCauley had carved out a place as one of the leading jockeys.
McCauley had plenty of success in major races during those years as well. In September 1982, he won his first Grade 1 race, guiding Wings of Jove to victory in the Matron Stakes at Belmont Park. He won the Haskell Invitational Handicap on Deputed Testamony in 1983. A year later, he finished second in the Kentucky Derby aboard Coax Me Chad.
In the late 1980s, McCauley followed many of Monmouth’s top jockeys, and moved full-time to the prestigious New York circuit. While riding there, he won a bevy of graded stakes on top horses, including El Señor, Devil His Due, Saratoga Dew, and Solar Splendor.
One of his career highlights came in 1992, when he rode the New York-bred Thunder Rumble to victory in the Travers Stakes. Coming off a 24.90-1 upset win in the Jim Dandy, McCauley guided him to a runaway 4 1/4-length score.
Three years later, McCauley pulled off an upset in the Kentucky Oaks. Riding 34-1 longshot Gal in a Ruckus for trainer John Ward, he was aboard for a front-running win, defeating 3-10 favorite Urbane by 1 1/4 lengths. That summer, McCauley moved his tack back to Monmouth Park, and resumed a place as one of their leading riders.
It wasn’t all fun times, though. To make weight as a high school wrestler, he took on frantic measures, including wearing rubber suits, taking laxatives, and binging and purging whatever he ate. When he moved over to the track, he continued the same habits.
The struggle took its toll, and McCauley developed bulimia. At one point, he resorted to using Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication. Doing so severely damaged his kidneys and landed him in the hospital. In time, McCauley learned to manage his weight. Once he did so, his star began to shine brightly.
Over the first two-plus decades of his career, McCauley had become one of the East Coast’s most established riders. Heading into the 1998 Monmouth Park season, he had won more than 3,000 races, with earnings of more than $70 million.
McCauley’s career — and life — took a dramatic turn on July 10, 1998. In the fourth race at Monmouth Park, he was riding a maiden named Merri Soul. Heading into the first turn, McCauley tried to send his filly to the lead, but two horses came up on either side and cut him off. Merri Soul clipped heels, and McCauley was thrown to the ground. He suffered a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula in his left leg. That night, he underwent nine hours of surgery, during which a titanium rod and four screws were inserted into the leg.
At that point, both McCauley and his doctors were unsure if he would ever be able to walk normally again. A return to the saddle seemed completely out of the question. After 3 ½ years and countless hours of physical therapy, McCauley was finally able to walk. It took another four years before he could walk without a limp.
For nine years, McCauley tried to get along. He opened up about his struggles with bulimia, attending mental therapy as well as physical therapy. He served as a jockey agent for Kyle Kaenel at Aqueduct and took on occasional speaking engagements. He served as an ambassador for VISA at the Triple Crown races. He won, then lost, a fortune at the Atlantic City casinos. His marriage dissolved, and he fell into a depression.
Throughout his forced retirement, McCauley never felt content. As his ability to walk grew better, the desire to ride grew stronger and he missed the thrill of competition. If he was going to go out, he wanted it to be on his own terms.
In the spring of 2007, McCauley decided to make his comeback a reality, and began his training program with the help of a friend, professional trainer Mike Greenblatt. He walked 10 miles a day on the New Jersey beaches, plowing through the heavy sand. He set up a gym in his living room and started intense sessions with Greenblatt.
That summer, trainer Alan Goldberg began putting him on horses to exercise in the morning. Feeling better than he had in years, McCauley announced that he would return to race riding at the Meadowlands that fall.
On Sept. 8, 2007, what seemed impossible nine years prior became a reality. McCauley returned to the saddle in the ninth race at the Meadowlands, riding Calabria Bella for trainer Greg Sacco. Although he finished fifth, the outcome was secondary. SImply by returning to compete in a race, McCauley had defied improbable odds.
A few weeks later, on Oct. 17, McCauley won the first race of his comeback. He won a maiden claiming race on favored Missed the Prom, crossing the finish line eight lengths in front.
McCauley rode at both the Meadowlands and Aqueduct the rest of the year. On Oct. 24, he won three races in one day at Aqueduct. He concluded his comeback season with 10 wins from 87 starts with purse earnings of $325,590.
For the next two years, McCauley consistently rode at tracks on the East Coast. After taking a few months off in early 2008 due to weight issues, he was ready for opening day of the 2008 Monmouth Park season. That day, he won the Red Cross Stakes on Casino Transaction, for his first stakes triumph in a decade.
Although McCauley’s desire to ride never waned, weight issues continued. His career ended for good on May 25, 2010, with a fifth-place finish in a maiden-claiming race at Delaware Park. These days, he continues to ride show horses, serves as a consultant for prospective horse buyers, and owns a few off-track Thoroughbreds.
Although his comeback was relatively short-lived, the fact that it happened at all is nothing short of triumphant. McCauley overcame a devastating injury and personal struggles to return to what he loved most. That may have been his greatest victory of all.