05/23/2013 9:16AM

C.J. McMahon and agent, both 18, finding youth isn't easily served

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Jockey C.J. McMahon and his agent, Robert “Rocco” O’Connor 3rd are trying to make a go of it in the tough Churchill Downs riding colony.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In the rough-and-tumble world of sales, there exists a certain belief that gray whiskers may have a persuasive effect on potential customers because they imply invaluable experience and wisdom.

These dudes don’t have gray whiskers.

It can be an extremely tough sell, indeed, for an 18-year-old jockey and his 18-year-old agent in trying to convince owners and trainers that they are capable of helping them win horse races.

Yet in the case of jockey C.J. McMahon and his agent, Robert “Rocco” O’Connor 3rd, they’re out there pounding the shed rows and the tack-room offices at Churchill Downs, trying to tell anyone who’ll listen that they are the right team.

Thus far at the Churchill spring meet, McMahon and O’Connor are hearing “no” a lot. Through last weekend, even after having been in Kentucky for some six weeks, McMahon has had only 15 mounts at Keeneland and Churchill, winning with none.

“It’s been frustrating,” said McMahon, a Louisiana native who at his young age already has racked up an impressive number of career wins (262), virtually all of them in his home state. “I’ve thought about going back home, but that’d be like giving up. And I’m not going to give up.”

In certain ways, McMahon’s age belies his experience. Raised in rural central Louisiana, he was galloping horses by the time he was 8, and his 69 winners at the 2011-12 Fair Grounds meet in New Orleans were good for fifth in the standings and placed him above the likes of Robby Albarado, Corey Lanerie, and other highly accomplished veterans.

He also has four minor stakes wins to his credit, the latest coming aboard Johnny Handsome in the restricted Crescent City Derby on the March 30 Louisiana Derby undercard at Fair Grounds.

His move from Louisiana to try the bigger tracks in Kentucky was not a major stretch.

“C.J. is very capable,” said Eclipse Award-winning trainer Dale Romans, who has been a mentor of sorts to McMahon. “He knows horses, that’s for sure.”

O’Connor is the second of three children of Rob O’Connor 2nd and his wife, Laurie. The elder O’Connor has had a trainer’s license since 1985. He, like his son, grew up in Louisville attending the races at a very early age with his father, a horse owner. Just a few months older than McMahon, the younger O’Connor is ambitious, eager, earnest – and very green, as they say.

“Rocco really wants to do this, or at least try to give it his very best shot,” said his father. “Everybody has to start somewhere.”

Of course, McMahon could have hired an older agent when he decided this winter while riding at Fair Grounds that he would team up with O’Connor to make the move to Kentucky for the first time. He was aware that this could be a time-consuming process – getting people accustomed not only to his new face, but also to an agent who didn’t even graduate from his Louisville high school, St. Xavier, until last weekend.

McMahon said O’Connor came personally recommended by several fellow riders, including Albarado and Brian Hernandez Jr. He also saw for himself a youthful enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit in O’Connor, who already has his own lawn-care company with 20 to 25 customers, including Albarado and Lanerie.

O’Connor is so crazy about being at the races that, even before he could drive, he would pay his high-school car pool to go out of the way to drop him off at Churchill after classes let out.

“Rocco loves being around the game,” said McMahon. “He and I hit it off pretty good.”

McMahon has relied heavily on advice from Romans and Tammy Fox, a Churchill power couple whose stable just so happens to be in a win slump. Romans and Fox are longtime friends with Rocco’s parents.

“We’d love to help C.J. more than we’ve been able to so far,” said Fox. “But we’re not exactly setting the world on fire right now.”

“Dale and Tammy have tried to encourage me and keep my head up and have me stick with the plan,” McMahon said before climbing aboard a Romans horse to exercise on a recent morning. “They’ve been very good to me.”

McMahon and O’Connor both said other trainers who had made vague promises have not yet followed up. Moreover, bumping the likes of Lanerie, Albarado, Shaun Bridgmohan, and Rosie Napravnik from preferred mounts on a day-to-day basis is far easier said than done.

As a result, they often have spent their mornings with not enough to do. The afternoons and evenings haven’t been any better, although, as of this past week, they decided to start riding certain nights at Indiana Downs some two hours north of Louisville, with McMahon using veteran agent Tony King to secure his mounts there.

McMahon, who was home-schooled by his mother and has a general equivalency diploma, is the son of divorced parents: Charles “Dink” McMahon, a Quarter Horse jockey who has ridden competitively for 35 years and is still active at Delta Downs, and Sandra McMahon, who has worked extensively in the Quarter Horse industry in Louisiana and currently lives in Louisville with her husband. Because the  younger McMahon is staying with his mother and stepfather and saving on living expenses, he is not feeling the financial pressures he might otherwise.

Still, things haven’t gone as hoped.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a struggle,” said McMahon, whose youth is revealed in part by the braces on his teeth. “The only struggle is getting people to ride us.”

McMahon and O’Connor both know there is the temptation for older people to see these two teenagers working together in a grown-up’s game and say something to the effect of, “Aww, now isn’t that cute.”

But the two recoil at such notions. They’re as serious as can be about being taken seriously.

“C.J. can ride,” said O’Connor. “He’s shown that. We’d just like people to look past the age thing and give him a shot. Once we start riding and winning, who knows how well we can do.”

Cover2 More than 1 year ago
Keep walkin those barns, how do any of 'em get started ? Start bringing those 30-1 shots in to show, then ya get some eight to ones, still longshots, then they will see !
Rocco Oconnor More than 1 year ago
Thank you for your support
PennNatRick More than 1 year ago
Too bad more people can't be like Rocco. Starting up at lawn mowing business at a young age and it doesn't stop there. He is working on his skills as an agent. Great Stuff! Nice to see a great story.
Rocco Oconnor More than 1 year ago
This is Rocco thank you very much
qwiksilverx More than 1 year ago
There's the future of horse racing. And it sounds pretty bright. Keep at it boys.
Jim Fields More than 1 year ago
Tough tuff, for a young agent to convince older established horsemen to use his also young rider. It's obvious that TJ can ride and win, but they are trying to overcome too many obstacles too soon. Their time may come, but maybe not together at this time.
Rocco Oconnor More than 1 year ago
This is Rocco just to let you know this how every one starts and we are going to make it so I wanted to let you know that so you can sleep better tonight cj can realy ride he might be the next big thing and I am a damn good agent I probably one of the best there is we will be ok my brother
Bruce Epstein More than 1 year ago
Hey kid, spend some time at Indiana and Hoo as well as Tampa then attempt to move up in class.
Stephen Thompson More than 1 year ago
Going from fair Grounds to any of the tracks you just mentioned is a step down.
johnlee1976 More than 1 year ago
really??? I've never thought of Fair Grounds as a premiere winter meet.
charles b More than 1 year ago
C. J. the key is to start riding on a regular basis where you get secure more live mounts. Have watched you ride, and you do have a bright future. Winning will open the eyes of trainers. Luis Saez, spent a few years at Calder and led riders there. Trainers began to take notice and this past season he made a break through winning quite a bit at Gulfstream. Now he is riding very well in New York. Be patient and build your resume...........................your time will come.