12/08/2011 1:30PM

Fair Grounds apprentice McMahon already riding like a pro

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Alexander Barkoff
C.J. McMahon had nine winners in the first eight racing days at Fair Grounds and was third in the jockey standings. At 17, he is trying to break into the big time.

NEW ORLEANS − The kid comes rolling up to the Fair Grounds front side in a gleaming, cherry-red pickup with expensive custom rims, head barely visible above the dashboard. He bounces from the reserved parking area up to the grandstand, through the west paddock gate and into the jock’s room, smiling all the way. Miguel Mena is the only other rider in the quiet room at 9 a.m. on a race day. The kid tosses a verbal barb toward Mena, at 25, eight years his senior. Mena grins ruefully as the kid sets his backpack down in his cubby, squeezed near the spaces used by Robby Albarado, Jamie Theriot, and Shaun Bridgmohan, “Millionaire’s Row,” some of the other jocks call it.

C.J. McMahon feels right at home in that little spot – already. McMahon just turned 17. He became a jockey barely seven months ago. Until Nov. 24, he had ridden only at minor Louisiana tracks: Evangeline Downs, Delta Downs, a couple of weeks at Louisiana Downs. But McMahon won nine races during the first eight racing days at Fair Grounds, placing him third in the early standings. He has youth, radiant confidence, a five-pound apprentice weight allowance, and the same agent, Tony Martin, who guided Joe Talamo to the 2006-2007 Fair Grounds riding title that paved his path to Southern California success.

“He’s kind of like Joe Talamo,” said Kerwin “Boo Boo” Clark, a 36-year veteran rider also represented by Martin. “Is he a Joe Talamo? Not yet. Is he getting there? I think so.”

Talamo is a city boy from Marrero, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, but McMahon comes out of rural central Louisiana, Cajun country. The area was long a breeding ground for talented jockeys – producing Hall of Famers Eddie Delahoussaye, Randy Romero, and Kent Desormeaux – but Jamie Theriot, now 32, really is the last Cajun rider to leave Louisiana and make a national mark. And if Cajun jockeys have hit a dry spell, it has been an even longer one for black riders. African-American prominence in the saddle faded in the early 20th century, never to return. In McMahon, the two traditions come together.

Things have happened fast for C.J. McMahon. It wasn’t until April that he rode in a horse race, and McMahon won with only four of his first 110 mounts, but then he took off, winding up the Evangeline meet in early September with 65 winners, third-best in that jockey colony. A month or so into the Delta Downs meet that began in October, McMahon was leading rider with 23 wins, but his plan was always to come to New Orleans. Now he is sharing the track with the name jocks, learning more day by day.

“It’s different riders here. People will race-ride you, put you in tight,” McMahon said, tilting his head toward Mena.

Another, slower current runs contrary to the rapidity of McMahon’s rise. His training for that April debut began on ponies before McMahon even was school-aged. His father is a jockey, his mother a former jock’s agent and current racing official. McMahon started galloping Quarter Horses when he was 8. His grandfather, trainer Phillip Calais, would pick 14- and 15-year-old McMahon up before dawn to gallop and work Quarter Horses. All this makes C.J. McMahon a throwback to an era that has disappeared, when Cajun kids rode bush tracks learning skills that put them ahead of the rest of the country.

“He’s got the ‘it’ thing,” Shane Sellers, one of the modern Cajun greats, said on a recent morning at Fair Grounds. Sellers rode at Evangeline when McMahon broke in, and McMahon names him as a major influence. “I said it from this summer. He’s the best young rider I’ve seen in years. At Evangeline, he was riding horses that a lot of the older riders just didn’t want to get on. He’d tuck in behind, come out with his run – you just don’t see a bug boy riding like that.”

McMahon still has miles to go before being linked with the likes of Delahoussaye, Romero, and Desormeaux. But in a sense he already belongs to a list containing names such as Isaac Murphy, Jimmy Winkfield, and Willie Simms, Kentucky Derby-winning jockeys who were black.

“To me, color is not an issue,” McMahon said. “To me, God made us all equal.” 

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McMahon turned 17 on Nov. 8, but, baby-faced, he could pass for a high-school freshman. He seems more sincere than naive with his statement of equal opportunity, and maybe, for McMahon, color really isn’t an issue. The business his agent procures transcends racial bounds. And for McMahon, being around black racing people is the norm, not the exception.

Charles “Dink” McMahon, C.J.’s father, is riding the Quarter Horse meet at Evangeline while his son tries to break in at Fair Grounds. McMahon’s mother, Sandra (McMahon’s parents divorced in 2000) has been working the Evangeline Quarter Horse meet as a racing official, and was a longtime jockey agent on the Quarter Horse side.

Dink McMahon grew up in East Texas, but Sandra comes from Cajun country, and central Louisiana has a black horse-culture like nowhere else in the United States. At least 20 black trainers regularly start Thoroughbreds in the region. On a recent afternoon at a farm outside Carencro owned by a woman named Vicky Nero, the dozen or so men gathered around the barn, save one groom, were all black. The group included Phillip Calais, C.J.’s grandfather, and Casey Calais, his uncle. C.J. spent most of his mornings for a couple of years exercising horses on a tiny oval in the field out behind the stables.

“It’s changed a lot around here in the last 15, 20 years,” said Phillip Calais, who has been training on his own for 32 years, and before that worked for legendary Cajun horseman Junius Delahoussaye, a white man. “Before there were more black grooms and exercise riders. Now there are more owners and trainers.”

Dink McMahon said he was one of about only five or six black jockeys in the region when he started riding at Delta Downs in the late 1970’s.

“At the beginning, [race] might have made a difference in the chances I got,” McMahon said. “But all of a sudden I picked up a string of good horses, and everything got easier.”

DeShawn Parker is one of the few active African American riders in the country. Forays into more mainstream racing venues didn’t lead to much, but Parker, 40, has carved out a niche as a win-machine at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia. While race hasn’t stopped Parker from being the leading North American jockey by wins in 2010 and 2011, he said that wasn’t always the case.

“It definitely didn’t help in the beginning, I don’t think,” Parker, an Ohio native, said in a recent phone interview. “I felt I didn’t get the first opportunities like everyone else did when I started out. It was definitely out there. It wasn’t put to my face or anything. It’s just a feeling you get, like probably a white rider might get more mounts. And not even just mounts, but agents and things like that.”

Black riders – often slaves or freed slaves – dominated racing in the middle and late 19th century, and a black jockey rode the Kentucky Derby winner in 15 of the race’s first 28 years. But by the early 1900’s, the number of black jockeys began an inexorable decline. As Jim Crow took hold, the Thoroughbred foal crop cratered, peaking at 3,990 registered foals in 1904 before falling to 1,950 in 1910. Potential mounts grew scarce just as blacks were generally marginalized.

By the time the foal crop exploded in the mid-20th century, breaking the 20,000 mark for the first time in 1966, vast numbers of African Americans had migrated from country to city. With a pressing need for more jockeys to ride more racehorses, it was Latino riders who filled the void. A black man didn’t ride in the Kentucky Derby between 1921 and 2000, when Marlon St. Julien guided Curule to a seventh-place finish. No black man has ridden in the Derby since.

St. Julien, now 39, grew up in Lafayette and started riding at Evangeline. His win total went from 14 in 1989 to 72 in 1991 and 113 in 1992. His ride in the Derby brought national headlines, and St. Julien had become the Great Black Hope. But his career swooned, never to fully recover, the year after his Derby mount. 

“I had a lot of downfalls in my career, but it wasn’t because I was black. It was my fault,” said St. Julien, who also is based at Fair Grounds this winter.

When Parker left Ohio to ride in West Virginia, he caught on with a leading Mountaineer trainer named John Semer. Soon, Parker had gotten into the massive Dale Baird operation. His skin color ceased to matter.

“I think any rider of any race or sex, when they start winning races, that’s all it takes,” Parker said.

“If you’re talented, you work hard, and you can ride, it doesn’t matter if you’re pink, purple, or blue,” St. Julien said.

St. Julien didn’t start riding until he was in high school, but McMahon’s horse education began much earlier and progressed steadily.

“He started galloping when he was 8 years old,” Dink McMahon said. “Between 8 and 10, I put him on a couple a day. When he got to be 10, I put him on a couple more, and from 10 to 12 some more still, and when he was up to 13, I let him get a little more speed. Next thing I knew he was out there galloping with me. We were out there together on the track, set by set, galloping maybe 30 a day. I did keep him in a round pen for a long time, just teaching him to feel horses. He knows every aspect of horses – not just the riding, but the grooming, cleaning the stalls, the whole nine yards.”

This was all Quarter Horse work, and last January, McMahon went to work for prominent Louisiana trainer Sam Breaux, regularly getting on Thoroughbreds for the first time.

“He came and went to work, and he worked hard,” Breaux said. “He wanted to be a jockey, and I figured he needed to get stronger. He didn’t have that upper body strength you needed to ride, but he started to get better as he went along.”

Quarter Horse jockeys like the elder McMahon don’t have to learn to judge pace: Their job is to get out of the gate and go hard. So, when McMahon came to Breaux, he needed a crash course in timing.

“I always asked him, ‘You counting out there? How fast were you going?” He’d say, ‘I don’t know. Let me ask the clocker.’ I said, ‘No, that’s not what I mean. How fast do you think you were going?” We went round and round about that. We work a horse: How fast he went? I wanted him to be counting. But he’s kind of a natural with the pace.”

Physically, McMahon has a body the envy of any aspiring jockey, 5 feet 3 inches tall and just 103 pounds. Barring a growth spurt, he’ll be able to put on bulk and muscle with maturity and still comfortably make weight. And McMahon is more than the right size. Bug riders often can be found winging on the lead in many of their races. McMahon can get a horse out of the gate, for sure, but he spent a surprising amount of time rating and rallying only a couple months into his career.

“He rides like an old rider,” said Martin, the agent, who took McMahon’s book at the start of his career. “He doesn’t ride like a kid that’s been riding seven, eight months.”

McMahon is unfailingly polite with a stranger, all ‘Yes sirs’ and ‘No sirs,’ but there is clearly more going on beneath the surface. McMahon, like most young jocks who find success, must walk a fine line between confidence and cockiness. He has a quick temper, people who know him say. At school, his grandfather, Phillip Calais, said, McMahon “was rough, really rough,” getting in fights before his mother began home-schooling him.

McMahon doesn’t deny the fighting. “Kids picked on me a lot because of my size,” he said. “My dad told me not to let them get over on me.”
McMahon said he is open to guidance from older, more experienced riders. But if a peer, someone twice or even three times his age, gets angrily in his face, McMahon won’t just take it. “You just have to grow up and be a man, even if you’re not ready,” he said.

Kerwin Clark, the jockey who has mentored McMahon as much as anyone, said McMahon is “a good kid.”

“He’s got a great attitude, the right demeanor,” said Clark, a 52-year-old who has ridden as far afield as Saudi Arabia. “He’s never strayed to where you have to say, ‘Hey! That’s not the right thing to do.’ He’s a 17-year-old kid, he’s winning races, making lots of money.

Sometimes you have to push his shoulders down and keep him on the ground. I think by the end of this meet, if he continues to do what he’s started to do, if he continues taking advice, keeps his feet on the ground, we’re going to see a really good rider.”

Tony Martin said he thinks McMahon can be a top-five rider throughout the Fair Grounds meet. McMahon’s winter goals are at least that high, and, like Talamo, he hopes to use Fair Grounds as a stepping-stone to a bigger stage before his apprentice allowance expires. The talent exists to make that possible.

McMahon’s mother plans to move from Lafayette to near the Fair Grounds later this month, hoping to help steer her son in the right direction. She knows personally how easy it is for young jockeys to trade early morning works for late-night parties, to get tied in with the wrong crowd. Her ex-husband, C.J.’s father, was annually earning more than a half-million dollars in purse money for much of the 1990’s, riding in graded Quarter Horse stakes. But he ran into problems. The winners started drying up, and Dink McMahon was suspended three years in the mid-2000’s for possessing an illegal electrical device at a Delta Downs race in 2002.

“You know how the racetrack is,” Sandra McMahon said. “I just hope I can guide C.J. in the right direction. I’m trying to make him do everything correct. I think sometimes people look for something to be your downfall. Maybe sometimes you have to try a little harder because you’re black. But I can say that C.J. has been blessed by the people of Louisiana. They have not used his color as any kind of barrier. They let him ride completely on his talent.”