05/17/2012 10:35AM

Hovdey: McCarron looks back at memorable Preakness rides

Shigeki Kikkawa
Jockey Chris McCarron had just about every possible experience in 13 Preakness rides.

In his pre-race analysis of the 138th Kentucky Derby, for both his students at the North American Racing Academy and his own gambling pleasure, retired Hall of Famer and two-time Derby winner Chris McCarron liked Bodemeister, Sabercat, Gemologist, and Union Rags in a four-horse exacta box. He conceded that Santa Anita Derby winner I’ll Have Another had a shot, but he tossed him anyway. Why?

“Because of Mario Gutierrez,” McCarron confessed. “He didn’t really ride a good race in the Santa Anita Derby. He had every opportunity to keep Joel Rosario on Creative Cause trapped around the turn, and he let him out. He didn’t ride aggressively enough, and with I’ll Have Another breaking out of the 19-hole in the Derby, I envisioned him about seven deep going around the first turn because of the horse’s style, wanting to stalk.

“The next thing you know, the race unfolds complely different from what I imagined,” McCarron went on. “They were in pairs going past the stands the first time, and Gutierrez was smart enough and good enough to get over to where he was never more than three deep. I was really impressed with the way he got that horse around the track.”

So an expensive lesson at the windows turned into a teaching opportunity for McCarron in his post-Derby session at the academy. Blackboard instead of redboard. In the wake of I’ll Have Another’s victory over favored Bodemeister, McCarron added his voice to the chorus of praise greeting the emergence of Gutierrez as a cool hand under Derby pressure.

Now comes the Preakness, and a whole new challenge in a shorter race, a smaller field, and a two-week turnaround. McCarron, who still considers Pimlico ground zero of his illustrious career, had just about every possible experience in 13 Preakness rides, short of falling off.

McCarron made his Preakness debut in 1977, at age 22, and finished last aboard the 69-1 shot Regal Sir. McCarron’s brother, Gregg, finished next-to-last that day, but Chris does not recall much about the race other than the fact that his horse pulled up lame.

In 1983, McCarron lost the Preakness to the weather when Deputed Testamony freaked in the slop, defeating Chris and his dead-game runner-up, Desert Wine.

“All day long the rail was not the place to be,” McCarron said. “Nobody was winning down on the fence. I was on the lead and had the opportunity to choose my path, so I was about three horses off the fence turning for home when I hear a horse coming on the inside. I couldn’t believe it. Here comes Donny Miller and Deputed Testamony, whizzing right on by.”

In 1994, riding Derby winner Go for Gin, absolutely nothing went wrong until the final eighth of a mile when they were collared by Tabasco Cat. McCarron had saved horse, but they went down by three-quarters of a length.

“The best word to describe how I felt after that was deflated,” McCarron said.

In 1996, McCarron and Cavonnier were favored off their wafer-thin loss to Grindstone in the Derby. Grindstone was injured and retired, but at Pimlico they could not penetrate the 1-2 pace parade of Louis Quatorze and Skip Away. Editor’s Note passed Cavonnier to be third, but not before something sailed out of the rowdy Pimlico infield in McCarron’s direction.

“It was a Nerf football,” McCarron said. “I yelled, ‘Did you see that f----- football?’ They picked it up on the telecast and played it all week long – and they did not bleep it out. I heard from my mother about that.”

In 1997, McCarron rode Touch Gold, who went to his knees at the start. Somehow the colt stayed afloat and finished a noble fourth, even after tearing off a piece of hoof and then getting pinched back deep in the stretch by Kent Desormeaux aboard the front-running Free House.

“I don’t know how I stayed on, or how he ran as well as he did,” McCarron said. “Several of us in the field that year wore helmet cameras for ABC, and because they figured Touch Gold would have speed, they mounted my camera backwards. A few days later I watched the tape. You got to see him passing horses, and the jocks driving behind me as I went by.

“There was a microphone, too, so you could hear me yelling at Desormeaux as he was shutting me off,” McCarron added.

And what message did he impart?

“‘Dammit, what the f---!’ ” McCarron said, again with the potty mouth.

Of McCarron’s pair of Preakness wins, it is Alysheba’s in 1987 that set up a try for a Triple Crown. Horse and rider barely survived their Derby that year when Bet Twice, on the lead in the stretch, caused Alysheba to stumble twice. By contrast, the Preakness went like butter.

“Other than the night he broke his maiden up at Turfway Park, I thought the Preakness was probably the easiest win of his career,” McCarron said. “I mean he galloped around there. Angel Cordero was on Gulch, and he tried to trap me around the far turn. But by the time we got around the turn I just had Bet Twice and another horse in front of me.

Jockey Craig “Perret looked under his elbow and saw me coming and asked Bet Twice to run,” McCarron went on. “He was really scrubbing, but I never asked Alysheba to run until the sixteenth pole. I think I once right-handed and once left-handed, and he won by a very comfortable three-quarters of a length. Pulling up, Craig slapped my hand and said, ‘Congratulations, you got me again.’ There was a lot less drama.”

Five years later, Perret opted to ride Derby Trial winner Alydeed in the Preakness instead of the fifth-place Derby finisher Pine Bluff. Guess who got the mount? With McCarron aboard, Pine Bluff beat Alydeed by three-quarters of a length, and it is a similar Derby-to-Preakness improvement he sees this year in his analysis of Saturday’s race.

“I like Went the Day Well,” McCarron said, citing the Derby’s fast-closing fourth. “He ran a really strong race in the Derby. And I love the fact he got to go to the training center where Graham Motion trains his horses between the two races.”

As for I’ll Have Another, McCarron vows never to be surprised by anything Mario Gutierrez does again.

“He might now understand the magnitude of the Triple Crown events, because of what happened at Churchill Downs and all the adulation he received – rightfully so,” McCarron warned.

“But I don’t know,” McCarron added. “He might be a real laid-back, cool customer who might not be affected by all the hoopla. All he has to do is keep the same mindset he had in the Derby.”