04/19/2013 3:20PM

Jay Hovdey: McCarron remains as a link to San Juan Capistrano's great past

Benoit & Associates
Kotashaan set a course record and went on to be named Horse of the Year after beating Bien Bien in the 1993 San Juan Capistrano Handicap.

It was with a heavy heart that Chris McCarron, a Dorchester, Mass., native, breathed a sigh of relief that no one in his hometown circle of family and friends was physically damaged in the blasts last Monday that rocked the fabled Boston Marathon.

“The young boy, Martin Richard, who was killed was from Dorchester though,” McCarron said. “It’s amazing what kind of ripple a tragedy like that can have. At least in the long run it serves to join people together.”

McCarron, headmaster of the North American Racing Academy in Lexington, Ky., had his fellow New Englanders very much on his mind as he traveled to Evangeline Downs for a special appearance this weekend with racecaller Dave Johnson. But it was Friday, a school day.

“I called in sick,” McCarron said. “I just hope no one notices the ad Evangeline put in the Racing Form. ”

During his 28 years in the saddle – the last 13 of which were spent as a Hall of Famer – McCarron usually could be found this late April weekend at Santa Anita trying to win the San Juan Capistrano Handicap at nearly 1 3/4 miles on the grass. McCarron won the race four times and might have had a fifth had he not fallen earlier in the program in 1997 when he was supposed to ride favored Marlin in the feature. Eddie Delahoussaye stepped in for the ride and won by half a length.

The San Juan, once a jewel in Santa Anita’s crown, has become a shadow of its best days. The purse is a paltry $150,000. Its Grade 2 ranking is teetering on 3. The field of seven for the 74th running on Sunday, the meet’s closing day, has only one major stakes winner in the mix, Interaction, who had his best day more than three years ago in Argentina’s classic Gran Premio Carlos Pelligrini.

Then again, the horses are blissfully unaware of their own r é sum é s, and they always have the last word. For sheer entertainment it’s hard to top the last two runnings.

In 2011, the San Luis Rey winner Juniper Pass edged Brazil’s Imponente Purse by a head in a thundering finish with the first six horses lapped on each other at the line. Last year, it was 2010 winner Bourbon Bay back for more, catching East Coast invader Eagle Poise in what was the closest finish since the San Juan dead heat of 1970 between Fiddle Isle and Quicken Tree.

McCarron’s four San Juans began in 1985 with Prince True, a son of Majestic Light who emerged from the same Howard B. Keck gene pool that produced the wondrous fillies Tallahto, Hidden Light, and Le Cle. By then, Charlie Whittingham had trained 10 San Juan winners, so McCarron figured he was in the right pew.

“Prince True was a nice horse, but he wasn’t one of Charlie’s top horses,” McCarron said. “I think he was an example of how Charlie could map out a plan for a horse and have him peak on the right day.”

Prince True had to be right, since he was facing stablemate Estrapade and beat her by 1 1/2 lengths. The following year Estrapade won the Arlington Million and an Eclipse Award.

In 1991, McCarron iced a championship Santa Anita season by winning the San Juan aboard 8-year-old Mashkour for Bobby Frankel and owners Dale and Morley Engleson. The next four in the jockey standings at the end of that meet were Gary Stevens, Eddie Delahoussaye, Alex Solis, and Laffit Pincay.

“He’s another one that rose to the occasion,” McCarron said. “He was not particularly accomplished before or after that. It was another example of a trainer who can see a horse coming along and say, ‘This is the one who can get the mile and three-quarters,’ and then got them right on the day. And that’s incredibly difficult.”

For three solid years, from 1992 through 1994, McCarron was attached to the consistent chestnut Bien Bien for trainer Paco Gonzalez and owners John Toffan and Trudy McCaffery, winning eight stakes and $2.3 million. Bien Bien tried hard to win the 1993 San Juan but was second best to Kotashaan, who at least had the good taste to set a course record that day and go on to be Horse of the Year. When Kotashaan left the scene, the 1994 San Juan was left to Bien Bien if he wanted it. He did, beating Grand Flotilla without feeling the stick.

“Bien Bien was a better horse than he demonstrated on the racetrack,” McCarron said. “He was such a playboy. When I broke his maiden at Santa Anita he did everything wrong going a mile and an eighth. He broke on his left lead, then going past the wire he switched to his right lead and stayed on it halfway around the first turn, switched again and went halfway down the backstretch on his left. I told my agent, ‘This horse can really run, and he doesn’t have a clue.’ ”

Good racehorses don’t always reproduce themselves at stud, but Bien Bien wasted no time. From his very first crop out popped Bienamado: same shade of chestnut, same forward style, but otherwise different in competitive attitude.

“I don’t remember Bienamado feeling as powerful as Bien Bien,” McCarron said. “But he didn’t have Bien Bien’s tendencies to look around and pull himself up. He could really haul the mail.”

No kidding. In winning the 2001 San Juan, Bieneamado set a Santa Anita course record of 2:42.96 that lowered Kotashaan’s mark by more than two seconds.

In his role teaching aspiring jockeys at NARA, McCarron finds he does not have much reason anymore to impart knowledge about winning 1 3/4-mile races.

“That would be Raceriding 501,” McCarron said. “Very specialized training, since nobody wants to breed to the kind of horses who win those races anymore. One thing’s for sure, though. The mile and three-quarters separates a lot of them from the crowd.”