(Originally published in the April 25, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)
Shortly after my 18th birthday I sat down with my dad for one of those father-son conversations. I had approached him for his advice on what to do with my life.
We discussed the possibilities of where my education might guide me. I can’t remember what he said about my education, but I clearly recall his furtive statement.
“Matt, I will respect your choice and support you in any endeavor you choose,” Dad said. “I do have one stipulation. Just promise me you’ll never become a jump jockey.”
My response was quick and serious.
“Dad, you don’t have to worry; there is no way I’ll ever become a steeplechase jockey.”
Up to that point my only racing experience was watching either my father, Gregg, or my Hall of Fame uncle, Chris, compete on the world’s stages as flat jockeys. I grew up going to the races as a potential prodigy, but jump jockey? No chance.
Three years later I was fortunate to participate in the newly formed Amateur Riders Club of America, headed by Daily Racing Form cartoonist Peb. I got to, at least, taste what my father and uncle had spent their lives doing. I was hooked. Alas, this was as far as my passion would carry me, for unlike my father and uncle, I was 5’ 7” and weighed about 125 pounds. As a friend of mine put it, I was “a flat jockey trapped in a jump jockey’s body.”
While I was galloping horses at Pimlico, a friend offered to teach me how to jump. I felt it was a bit of a lark, but why not? Besides, she was cute. I had no clue how to jump a fence but had a blast trying. Soon I was introduced to timber jockey and trainer Billy Meister. He had come up under the tutelage of legendary horseman Mikey Smithwick. Billy had the patience of a saint because he spent countless hours of his time trying (much of the time in vain) to turn me into a jump jockey.
In the fall of 1992, I made my debut over jumps, and by the next spring I had my first fall and my first victory, winning a timber race at the Fair Hill Spring Races. Alicia Murphy trained the winner in a race named after her brother who had been killed in a racing accident at Delaware Park in the late 1970s. Finally, the monkey was off my back.
Highly regarded in the flat world, the McCarron name didn’t mean much in jump racing. I had to prove my worth. People knew my last name, and my dad and uncle won races for Jonathan Sheppard, Tom Voss, and many others, but I had to prove I could ride. Call it a reality check, and a pill I did not swallow well. My natural reaction was to rebuke the sport and just coexist, have fun, make some money, and leave it at that.
I did that well. The next five years I spent in relative mediocrity, averaging six wins a year; jumping came to me about as naturally as a cat jumping into a bath tub.
In 2003 the impossible became reality. I managed to tie defending champion Dave Bentley for the National Steeplechase Association’s jockey championship. I followed that with a second title in 2004. With this new-found success, I teamed with 2004 Eclipse Award winner Hirapour. He was one of those once-in-a-lifetime animals: my Alysheba. Without a doubt he was responsible for my greatest wins. I reached 100 career wins in 2003–joining a club of just 35–and cracked the 150 mark in 2006.
Only eight jockeys have reached the 200-win plateau–it’s like winning 7,000 races on the flat. Approaching the end of the 2008 season, I was within 14 wins of that mark. I had been contemplating retirement for the past couple of years but was still enjoying myself and riding some of the top horses. After winning the first race at the final meet of the season, the number 200 became a very realistic goal. Should I just manage to equal the last two years’ performances, I would have that number by the end of 2009.
Unfortunately my mount in the Palm Beach Stakes, Orison, had something to say about that. After losing me at the second-to-last fence, he proceeded to run me over. I shattered my shoulder blade, broke my clavicle, broke six ribs, and broke my neck. There might be a ninth jump jockey to reach 200 wins, but it won’t be me.
I may not have reached my final goal, but I consider myself one of the most fortunate people in racing. Even Dad and Uncle Chris learned to appreciate my career choice–even if they never learned how to jump.
Former jump jockey Matt MCCarron lives in Kennett Square, Pa.