10/16/2014 1:34PM

Hovdey: McCarron forced to teach hard lessons

Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography
Juan Saez became the 153rd jockey fatality since records were first kept, in 1940, by the Jockeys' Guild.

It’s one thing to stand at arm’s length and contemplate the horror of last Tuesday afternoon at Indiana Grand Race Course, where the 17-year-old apprentice Juan Saez was killed in a race worth $34,000.

It is quite another, though, to wake up the next morning and confront a room full of young Juan Saez wannabes, all of them longing to live the life of a professional jockey in spite of the dangers once again screaming at them from the headlines.

“I’m pretty upset about something, and I’m going to show you what it is,” began retired Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron as he convened his class at the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky. “Someone has lost their life for the sake of the profession.”

McCarron proceeded to show his students the video of the Saez accident, which occurred without warning when Saez’s horse, the 4-year-old Montezuma Express, appeared to clip the heels of another horse while racing on the far turn of the six-furlong optional claimer. Saez, a graduate of the Laffit Pincay Jockey School in Panama, won 89 races in a U.S. career that began last June and included the riding title at the Ellis Park meet.

“They were visibly saddened, of course,” McCarron said of his students. “There were a lot of concerned faces in the room. But I’m not there to sugarcoat or hide anything from them.”

McCarron has had a lot of material lately with which to work. In recent weeks, there have been a series of well-known riders injured to varying degrees in accidents during the post parade, the starting gate, and in the heat of the race itself.

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While a trailing horse was fatally injured in the chain reaction triggered by the Saez accident, Montezuma Express escaped without serious damage. This is a sight that tends to confound the racing fan with a visual disconnect – the horse is loping away, footloose and fancy-free, but the rider is down, terrifyingly still.

To hear experienced riders tell it, horses are clipping heels all the time during a race. This is because American racing is conducted primarily on ovals of a mile or less, and the American style of riding is tight. Jockeys have it driven into their heads at a young age that loss of ground is a cardinal offense. They learn to measure in inches how close they can ride to the opposition, and sometimes they get it wrong.

“It doesn’t happen as often on the turf because horses are flat-shod, wearing Queens Plate shoes,” McCarron said. “It is the toe grabs on the shoes worn for dirt racing that make for a greater chance that a horse could go down clipping heels, and it stands to reason. If the shoe grabs something and holds for only a split second, that interruption in the stride can be enough to cause a fall.”

McCarron has been campaigning for years for the elimination of the cleat, or toe grab, on the front of racing plates, which many trainers believe provides for better traction. There have been restrictions in place – in California, for instance, a toe grab can be no higher than four millimeters – but the fact that they are allowed at all increases the chances that a routine clipping of heels might result in a fall, in McCarron’s view.

“There are other reasons other than toe grabs that a horse will stumble or fall when they’ve clipped heels, just as there are a number of circumstances that lead to horses clipping heels at all,” McCarron said. “Sometimes it’s reckless riding, sometimes it’s careless riding.”

And sometimes it’s the view.

“I was told by someone familiar with Indiana Grand that at that point, at that time of day, jockeys have difficulty with the sun in their eyes,” McCarron said. “There are many racetracks around the country where we experience that problem. If your goggles have any scratches on them whatsoever, the scratches will refract the sunlight, and it’s very difficult to see where you’re going.

“From watching the replay, I’m noticing that Juan did not react at all when the horse in front of him is coming back to him in the middle of the turn,” McCarron said. “There’s no standing up on his part, no checking. It was just getting closer, closer, and then down. I will bet anything that he lost sight for a brief period of time.”

In a career of 28 years, 34,240 mounts, and 7,141 wins at the top of the game, McCarron counts himself fortunate that he never witnessed a fellow rider pay the ultimate price. There have been 153 riding fatalities documented by The Jockeys’ Guild since it started keeping track in 1940.

In October 1988, McCarron was in California, riding at Santa Anita, when Mike Venezia was killed at Belmont Park. In January 1975, McCarron was still in Maryland, fresh off his championship apprentice season, when Alvaro Pineda was killed in the starting gate at Santa Anita. On Oct. 14, 2014, when apprentice Juan Saez lost his life on the far turn at Indiana Grand, McCarron was at home in Kentucky grading quiz papers for his class of future jockeys.

“Whenever there’s such an incident, I’m there to teach them why I think it happened and how it maybe could have been prevented,” McCarron said. “They need to know – this is the worst part of the game.”