12/09/2016 3:10PM

Hovdey: McHargue holds reins from outside the rails


Some things are okay to forget. Darrel McHargue would be forgiven if the 1981 Hollywood Gold Cup had disappeared completely into the mists of memory. Instead, he recalls every yard, every move, everything that resulted in his narrow victory aboard the New Zealand horse Caterman over the Cal-bred Eleven Stitches, as well as the disqualification that followed. At $500,000, the Gold Cup was one of the richest races run in North American that season.

“I tightened it up, but I crossed the line,” McHargue said recently, when prodded into the past. “I knew it, and owned up to it with the stewards. They did what they had to do.”

Among the stewards who took Caterman down that day was Pete Pedersen, whose long and honorable career as an official was acknowledged not only with the respect of the players and his peers, but also with an Eclipse Award of Merit in 2001. Pedersen retired in 2005 and died in 2012 at age 92, but his name lives on in the form of the Pete Pedersen Award given annually by the Racing Officials Accreditation Program. Among the first honorees, in 2014, were Keene Daingerfield, Marshall W. Cassidy … and Darrel McHargue.

The Pedersen bauble fits nicely alongside the Eclipse Award won by McHargue in 1978, when his mounts banked $6,188,353 and broke the record Steve Cauthen set in 1977. (My handy inflation calculator translates the figure to $22.9 million today, which is very much in the Javier Castellano neighborhood.) More significantly, McHargue won his Eclipse Award in the face of Cauthen’s 1978 Triple Crown performances aboard Affirmed, and he came within 10 wins of taking the races-won championship as well.

The arc of McHargue’s impact as a rider ran roughly from 1974 – when he and the rapid Hot n’ Nasty forced Jacinto Vasquez to go to the whip on Ruffian to win the Sorority – to 1983, when McHargue went to Ireland to ride for Dermot Weld.

In between, the McHargue highlight reel includes wins in the Preakness with Master Derby, the Hopeful with General Assembly, the Santa Anita Handicap with Vigors, the Arlington-Washington Futurity with Honest Pleasure, and seven stakes aboard John Henry.

McHargue retired from riding in 1988, at 34, with more than 2,500 U.S. victories and set upon a second career as a racing official. By 1996, he had joined the California pool of racing stewards, following in a natonwide industry tradition of retooling former jockeys that has included Bill Hartack, Ted Atkinson, Walter Blum, William Passmore, Eddie Arroyo, Don Brumfield, Alfred Shelhamer, and Hubert Jones.

Now McHargue is reaching the end of his first year as the California Horse Racing Board’s chief steward, a job that has taken him out of the booth and into just about every piece of business that passes through the hands of the state’s stewards. McHargue views and reviews every angle of every race run every day. He pours over the daily stewards’ minutes that chronicle decisions and hearings. He works with the CHRB’s public information officer, Mike Marten, to help analyze, explain, and otherwise justify those decisions that rise to the level of controversy.

McHargue’s main task, at least according to his original mandate, is to strive for a consistency in the pressure-filled race rulings made by stewards, no matter who is making the decisions or where they occur.

“Consistency is the ideal,” McHargue said last week, before heading to Arizona for an ROAP panel appearance during the Global Symposium on Racing and Gaming. “But it’s also a challenge. So often what goes on out there is in the eye of the beholder.”

There is no appeal process of racing rulings available in California, which makes it even more important that there is some kind of review process in place, beyond the court of public opinion. McHargue emphasized that his job is not that of second-guessing the stewards. Dispassionate analysis is more like it, with a goal toward quality control, although McHargue conceded that some pushback from veteran stewards was to be expected.

“It’s my job to win them over,” he said. “Stewards only get feedback on their job when someone disagrees with what they’ve done. They rarely get told, ‘Hey, you got it right.’ I’m not going to agree with how every ruling was made, but when I do agree with an especially difficult call, I’ll let them know. When I don’t, we’ll have a productive discussion.”

It makes sense that every jurisdiction should cultivate officials from the ranks of retired horseman – jockeys or trainers. In the right hands, insight and experience can be useful traits.

“Jockeys can make good stewards, but not every jockey should be a steward, just because they’ve been out there competing,” McHargue said. “It’s a much different world. You’ve got to be truly dedicated to improving the sport. And, like Keene Dangerfield said, you’ve got to have a hide like a rhinoceros.”

As well as the ability to forgive and forget, or at least forget about forgiving and move on. McHargue lost the 1977 Travers to a disqualification as well as the ’81 Hollywood Gold Cup, headline news at the time but now nothing more than footnotes in a career he left a long time ago.

“I do have that finish photo of the Gold Cup hanging in my garage, though,” McHargue said. “It was a heckuva race.”