08/29/2007 11:00PM

A delicate balance in the saddle


DEL MAR, Calif. - Chris McCarron was on his way to an orientation Thursday morning for the new school year at his North American Racing Academy, headquartered at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. Awaiting him were 10 new students, wide-eyed, innocent, and determined to become professional jockeys.

It is McCarron's job to impress upon his young disciples the challenges of the job, the dangers, and the considerable responsibilities. Being a jockey is not all state dinners at the White House and offers to appear on "The Tonight Show," unless you're Calvin Borel.

As a retired Hall of Famer with two Kentucky Derby wins among his 7,141 official victories, McCarron is never at a loss for teaching material. Neither does he hesitate to grab lessons from current events, especially when a headline hits home with aspiring riders. A headline, for instance, like, "Hall of Famer Suspended for Misuse of Whip on Fatally Injured Horse."

Along with thousands of concerned racing fans across the land, McCarron watched the footage of the Russell Baze incident that occurred at Bay Meadows on Aug. 23, in which Baze - the sport's all-time leader in races won - whipped a horse that appeared to take a bad step while leading deep in the stretch. The horse, Imperial Eyes, lasted only a few more strides before clearly breaking down, at which point he was pulled up quickly by Baze.

"It appeared to me that Russell just lost it for a second," McCarron said.

"But how many times have you heard, 'Russell Baze will ride anything with hair on it'? He never scratches a horse. He has the utmost faith and trust in the people he rides for and the horse he's riding. One side of me feels bad for him, because he made a mistake, he knows he made a mistake, and he took his medicine like a man. The other side of me says, 'Damn, what was he thinking?' "

What Baze was thinking was probably not that much different from what a much younger Chris McCarron was thinking while aboard a horse for trainer Leonard Dorfman in the late 1970s.

"I was 10 in front at the sixteenth pole and I heard a pop," McCarron recalled. "I felt the horse slow down, but he didn't change strides right away. I steadied him, and he continued like he felt all right. So I tapped him on the shoulder to make him pick it back up again, and that's when he bobbled.

"At that point I look over my right shoulder, and I see I'm still six in front with a hundred yards to go. And I dropped his head! Like, 'We only have a little ways to go, little man. Let's keep going.' In the end, discretion was the better part of valor and I had to pull him up. He still finished third. After the race I watched the replay and thought, 'What an idiot.' "

When it comes to being penalized for misuse of the whip, Baze has plenty of company among the elite of his profession. Just this year, the British champions Frankie Dettori (flat) and Tony McCoy (jumps) were both set down for whipping violations.

For McCoy, an occasional whip ban is pretty much the price of doing business as the most successful jump jockey in history. On the other hand, Dettori's transgression earlier this season was out of character. Reporter Mark Jeffreys of the Guardian marked it down to a certain desperation on the part of the jockey and Godolphin to win the prestigious Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot with their pricey Italian colt Ramonti, "even at the cost of a 14-day whip ban for striking the horse 25 times inside the final two furlongs."

"The relief of stable and rider at recording a first British Group One win in two seasons was tangible," Jeffreys wrote.

In trying just as hard to win that $8,000 race (Baze's cut would have been $480, less agent's percentage and valet fees), Baze admitted that he misjudged the condition of the horse, which led to the penalty of misusing the whip. McCarron's students will be getting an earful on both counts.

"I want them to know when to use the whip, how often to use it, where and where not to hit a horse," McCarron said. "I think the whip should be used to encourage horses, and not force them, when a horse is already giving its all.

"We're also teaching why horses feel differently when they're under them. Why one might go a little choppy because he has sore feet or tender shins, as opposed to something like a knee injury. I'll try to ingrain in them how important it is to be an asset to the trainer when it comes to trying to diagnose something that's maybe not visible to the eye, but you can feel when you're on their back."

At some point, McCarron said, his students will be studying the Aug. 23 race at Bay Meadows.

"I'll use it for two reasons," McCarron said. "That this rider has as much if not more will to win than any other athlete I've ever been around.

"But the other side of it is that it's a great example of what not to do."