05/23/2013 8:16AM

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

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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.”