06/21/2002 12:00AM

Chris McCarron has family to keep him humble


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In order to take the full measure of a man, it helps to consider his family, how they support each other in time of need, and how they observe the great occasions.

Chris McCarron is surrounded in Boston Irish blood by four brothers and four sisters. As children of Herb and Helen McCarron, they were taught by example to bear themselves with humility and grace. No matter what happened, in school or at play, no single one of them was ever held in more esteem than another.

And so, when the clan gathered on the evening of May 16, 1987, to celebrate the victory of their brother in the Preakness Stakes aboard Alysheba, they reacted in true McCarron fashion. They lauded Chris, praised his skill, and raised their glasses in a good luck toast for Alysheba's attempt to win the Triple Crown three weeks hence.

Then they had a food fight.

Certainly, with such a record of accomplishment, Christopher John McCarron had every right to grow an ego of alarming proportions. From his first full season, with a record-breaking 546 winners, to the twilight of last autumn when he won a record fifth Breeders' Cup Classic, McCarron has sustained a level of excellence achieved by only a handful of riders.

But then, if ever his head began to swell, a brother would be able to remind Chris that his first car was a VW bug that friends had to push while he popped the clutch, just to get it started.

This is why McCarron, in spite of his Hall of Fame credentials, cuts the figure of a blue-collar working stiff rather than a custom-tailored dandy.

Now retiring after 28 years at the top of the game, his career has been remarkably scandal free - no drug dependencies, no rash of suspensions, no messy divorces. When he stands before the microphone on Sunday at Hollywood Park, bidding fans and colleagues farewell, they will remember him as a thorough professional who gave the sport as much as he got.

The reminders are tattooed all over his body: cracked shoulder blade, bruised kidney, fractured ribs, damaged knees, and a long, zippered scar along his left thigh, the result of a five-horse wreck at Santa Anita Park on Oct. 16, 1986. It took three hours of surgery to reconstruct the femur and hip joint with a steel plate and 11 metal pins.

On June 3, 1990, the day McCarron was supposed to ride Horse of the Year Sunday Silence in the Californian at Hollywood Park, he went down in an earlier race on the card and was hit hard by a trailing horse. The damage: a clean break of the left femur, a broken right forearm, and a broken right tibia, just below and to the outside of the knee. McCarron still wears the metal rod used to repair his left leg.

McCarron deflects all hints of pity. All riders face such threats to their health. McCarron admits he was terrified the first time he got on a horse,

30 years ago, at the Pimlico barn of trainer Odie Clelland. Young McCarron wasn't sure there would be another.

Clelland was very much on McCarron's mind this week as he sat at his computer keyboard, at home in Sierra Madre, composing his farewell speech.

He will be wearing Clelland's blue and red silks on Sunday during the special ceremonies.

"It's not easy," he said. "I'm kind of struggling. A friend advised me to include plenty of names, people important to me through the years. Now I'm worried that I'll forget somebody."

McCarron could keep it simple if he wanted to, and go no farther than the four women in his life.

Judy and Chris McCarron have been married 26 years. He gives her credit for the stability in his life that has allowed him to rise to the top of a rocky profession. She does not argue, because it wouldn't do her any good.

Erin is their oldest daughter, 23, and a graduate of the University of Massachusetts. She teaches at a private school in St. Petersburg, Fla., while continuing toward her goal to become a marine biologist and animal behaviorist. This summer she is working with whales.

Stephanie, who is 22, is an accomplished rider and trainer of Grand Prix-level horses, now plying her trade in the northern California town of Woodside for a private stable.

Kristin, who is about to turn 20, was most recently a student at the University of La Verne, east of Los Angeles, but now she is working at Universal Studios in the pre-production office for the untitled movie about Seabiscuit.

Then there are Joey, Ronnie, Corinne, Gregg, Alan, Barbara, Mark, and Colette. This was Team McCarron of Shenandoah Street, Dorcester, Mass., a working-class neighborhood that served as competitive crucible. The 12 houses on the street issued forth three dozen kids under the age of 16, turning Shenandoah into a constant frenzy of football, baseball, and street hockey.

"You couldn't walk out of the house and not get involved in a game," said Gregg McCarron. "And the older you got, the more you wanted to eliminate the younger ones. That's where we got our competitiveness."

Chris gives Gregg the credit for inspiring his career. Big brother by six years, it was Gregg who blazed the path to the racetrack and began earning real money. It was Gregg who took young Chris aside and delivered stern guidance on how to handle sudden fame and fortune. It was even Gregg that Chris beat a nose in the fall of 1974 to break Sandy Hawley's record of 515 winners in a year.

Gregg McCarron was an accomplished jockey in his own right, retiring with 2,403 victories to become a trainer in Maryland. The bond between the two riding McCarrons is strong. As members of the same dangerous trade, they shared more than most brothers can imagine. Chris was further blessed, because from Gregg there never came a drop of envy.

"Not the slightest twinge," Gregg said. "People have trouble believing that. Sure, when we were kids I would beat him up all the time. That's being brothers. And the only time I really got mad at him was when he would beat me a nose.

"But whenever someone asks me if I'm Chris McCarron, and I tell them, no, I'm his brother, the first thing they'll say is not what a great rider he is. It will be what a nice guy he is. How lucky am I to have a brother like that?"

At the age of 47, McCarron retires now to a life even richer than the one he has already led. He leaves behind a record that both inspires and challenges, just as his brother set a standard for Chris to follow 28 years ago.

How lucky is racing to have a man like McCarron? Very.