05/23/2005 12:00AM

McCarron has perspective


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - That shout of alarm heard last Saturday above the Pimlico din came from the living room of a suburban Lexington, Ky., home, where Chris McCarron was jolted off his couch by a sudden flashback to a similar near disaster of 18 years ago.

On the afternoon of May 2, 1987, McCarron and Alysheba appeared to be well on their way to victory in the 113th Kentucky Derby when Bet Twice, under Craig Perret, veered suddenly into their path. Alysheba stumbled badly, regained his stride, then had to angle even farther to the outside as Bet Twice continued to wander.

Alysheba went on to beat Bet Twice by three-quarters of a length, giving McCarron his first Derby, just as Afleet Alex recovered from Scrappy T's assault to save the Preakness for Jeremy Rose. The precise locations of the two incidents were different - one on the straightaway, the other coming out of a turn - but there were enough details in common to get McCarron's adrenaline pumping all over again.

"When I ranged up to Bet Twice that day, I was behind him and to the outside, and there wasn't a lot of room for error between us," McCarron recalled. "Watching it later, I think Bet Twice ducked from the left-handed stick. I guess Alysheba's left front foot could have missed Bet Twice's hind foot, but it didn't."

McCarron, age 32 at the time, was lucky to be riding in the Derby at all. The previous October, he had sustained the worst injury of his career when he went down in a five-horse wreck at Santa Anita. When he returned in March of 1987, he was riding with a six-inch plate in his repaired left leg, secured by 11 screws. By comparison, the Derby turmoil was tame.

"When you're out there, it's not about survival," McCarron said. "It's about instinct and reaction, and winning. In the Derby, before it happened, I vividly remember thinking only one thing - only one horse to go, and here comes the wire. When the race was over, and I stood up, I was in awe. My God, I thought, we won the roses! It was only when I was galloping back with the outrider did it occur to me that not only was it a victory, it was an incredible victory."

Just as Rose praised the acrobatic skills of Afleet Alex, McCarron gives eternal thanks to Alysheba's classy athleticism.

"To recover like they did - Alysheba and Afleet Alex - is an amazing effort on the part of both horses," McCarron said. "You have to remember, at that point in the race they're starting to get tired. Even though they're very fit animals, they've expended a lot of energy. To ask them to right themselves in full stride like that is asking a lot."

Still, McCarron noted, there are basic rules of horsemanship that must come as second nature to jockeys who find themselves in that position. According to McCarron, "It happens at some track somewhere probably every day of every week."

"You hear it said that a rider 'picked that horse up,' " McCarron said. "You can't pick a horse up. They're just too massive and going too fast for a little 110-pound person, who is maintaining their balance on the balls of their feet anyway, to do much. It's physically impossible.

"But you can get yourself back in a position to apply pressure and weight to the horse's mouth and head, so you're doing everything you can to assist him," he went on. "And you can't do that unless you have your feet in front of you and your heels down."

As for the cause of Saturday's thriller, McCarron managed to find something nice to say about Scrappy T's jockey, Ramon Dominguez, whose left-handed lashing triggered the incident. Dominguez was riding the colt for the first time.

"Ramon expressed the right feelings afterwards," McCarron said. "He seemed sincerely apologetic.

"Whenever you're going to be hitting a horse coming out of a left-hand elbow like that, first you've got to know the horse very well. Very seldom do you see a rider hit a horse at that point on the turn when he's not giving any indication that he's being difficult to handle. Ramon mentioned that he felt the horse decelerate and that his ears went up slightly. That very well could be the case, and it's a good reason to do something.

"But if you're going to hit a horse as aggressively as he did at that point on the turn, you sure better have a tight hold of that left rein with your right hand," McCarron added. "He may have thought he had a substantial hold, but it's pretty evident he didn't have as much control as he thought he had."

Now a full-time Lexington resident, McCarron is continuing to lay the groundwork for his dream of establishing an academy to train young riders, both on the ground and in the saddle. As a potential training film, the 130th Preakness illustrates the profession's deadly yin and heroic yang, all in the blink of an eye.

"One thing's for sure," McCarron said. "That one's going right into the files."