CAMDEN--For the past two decades, Matt McCarron has been a model of consistency on the National Steeplechase Association circuit, and it’s only fitting that on the day he would retire as a jockey, the horseman would go onto record one of the biggest wins of his career. McCarron won the Grade 1 Marion duPont Colonial Cup Saturday while in the irons on Jacqueline Ohrstrom’s Demonstrative.
Now 41, the jockey began his career in 1992, and would go onto ride many top horses including Mistico, Sur La Tete, the 2004 Eclipse Award winner Hirapour (IRE), and he also had the opportunity to ride multiple Eclipse Award winner McDynamo on one occasion.
McCarron eclipsed 200 victories in November 2011, winning an allowance race at Montpelier while up on George Strawbridge’s Rainiero (CHI). The jockey and horse were reunited one last time in Camden in the Hobkirk Hill, and McCarron would finish second in the race, his last mount, on the Richard Valentine charge.
“It would have been so special to go out winning on him because he’s so good to me,” said McCarron. “He was win number 199, 200, 201, 202 and 205. He’s basically the only reason I kept riding the last couple of years.”
And although McCarron’s career has been filled with a number of highlights including sharing the leading rider title by number of races won in 2003, winning the title outright in 2004, and being the leading jockey by annual earnings in 2004 and 2005, McCarron says the sport has provided him with the opportunity to be around so many outstanding people.
“The one thing that’s neat about our sport because we are such a small community, is that everyone looks out for each other, and we all pull for one another. Just being part of that community supercedes everything.”
There have been several horseman over the years that have had a profound influence on McCarron’s career including trainers Neil Morris and Alicia Murphy, and 1998’s leading jockey by number of wins, Sean Clancy.
“I can’t say enough,” said McCarron. “They’ve always been there to support me, whether it’s emotionally or physically, or on the ground. They’re always there to pick me up and set me back on my feet, no matter what is going on. I know I could call any one of them, and they’d be right there to do whatever I needed.”
A letter from Clancy at the end of the 2000 racing season resonated strongly with McCarron, and its content made an impact that would forever change the direction of the jockey’s career.
“I had the opportunity to ride with Sean,” said McCarron. “I’ve never been around anyone who’s been as passionate and competitive about his job than he was. He lived, ate and breathed steeplechase racing. I basically thank him for all of my success as far as my professionalism during the latter part of my career. He was retiring, and he said, ‘Look, if you really want to make a go of it, you need to do these things.’ I took it to heart and did it. It made all the difference in the world.”
The 200th victory of his career on Nov. 5, 2011 was significant, and very satisfying for McCarron.
“I always chase numbers, and when I got hurt, in 2008, I had just given up on the idea,” said McCarron. “For personal reasons, I ended up going back to riding.”
However, the horseman went into a slump, and wasn’t enjoying any success in the summer of 2011, and he made a difficult decision that all athletes struggle with, and find themselves eventually having to make.
“I wasn’t riding well, and I wasn’t riding anything,” said McCarron. “So, quietly, without telling anyone, I was finished.”
But, a propitous set of cirumstances would intervene, and McCarron would once again return to the game that has been so much a part of his life.
“Literally, two weeks after I decided to hang it up, I got a text from Richard (Valentine), asking me if I would ride a horse for him, one of Strawbridge’s, and I sort of inched back into it that way.”
An injury nearly ended the athlete’s career on Nov. 29, 2008. McCarron broke the C6 and C7 vertebrae at the Palm Beach Steeplechase in Wellington, Fla. in the $75,000 Palm Beach Stakes. The time off from riding meant making some adjustments.
“The difference was not being able to ride in as nearly many races,” said McCarron. “It wasn’t as instinctive for me anymore. I had to think everything through. Sometimes, I would over think and get the horses beat. I was older and wasn’t as fit as I used to be. Rainiero was my 17th ride all season.”
However, it was a incident this fall that gave McCarron pause for thought, and was responsible for his decision to finally hang up his tack for good.
A fall resulting in a concussion in the William Entenmann Memorial Hurdle Stakes at Belmont Park on Sept. 27, while in the irons on William Pape’s Fog Island, gave McCarron time to reflect on his career.
“Fortunately, I don’t remember anything, but that was what made me decide that I was finished,” said McCarron.
However, the intrepid warrior was far from done, and McCarron returned to ride Fog Island to victory in the $75,000 Foxbrook Champion Hurdle at the Far Hills race meeting on Oct. 20.
“I rode three great horses at Far Hills, Fog Island, Demonstrative (Grand National) and Apostasy (Gladstone),” said McCarron. “They were all just great, kind rides. And on Sunday morning, I struggled to get out of bed. My body finally said enough’s enough.”
The veteran rider said his father, former jockey Gregg McCarron told him he needed to get home, and to quit now.
What does the future hold in store for one of the sport’s top 10 all time leading riders.
“I’ve been contemplating becoming a flat jock’s agent,” said McCarron. “That’s going to be a learning process.”