06/20/2002 11:00PM

McCarron went extra mile in mornings, on backstretch

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Three days before the Kentucky Derby last month, owner Trudy McCaffery arrived on the Churchill Downs backstretch at 6 a.m. to find a surprise rider preparing Came Home for a jog.

Chris McCarron, not an exercise rider or trainer Paco Gonzalez, had asked for the assignment.

"He didn't have to do that," McCaffery recalled. "He could have stayed in bed, but there he was."

For McCarron, riding important horses did not begin and end in the afternoon. There were many mornings spent at the stable, riding workouts and discussing strategy. Several trainers say that is what they will miss most when McCarron retires at Hollywood Park on Sunday. His final stakes mount will be aboard Came Home in the Affirmed Handicap.

"I know Paco will really miss him," McCaffery said. "Together, they have achieved a tremendous amount. Chris has developed a huge respect for Paco. Of all the things that have happened in my career as an owner, the most touching thing is the relationship between Chris and Paco."

McCarron's absence will not only be felt on the backstretch, but also in the jockey's room, where he was a leader, and in the grandstand, where he was a fan favorite.

Not many riders have maintained such a continuous presence in the mornings in recent years. He worked horses six days a week, recording their progress and his appointments in a small date book he kept in his back pocket.

Trainers are quick to mention how McCarron shared success. Grooms and exercise riders of winning horses, particularly stakes horses, often found themselves with financial gifts after a win.

"He never forget their names," trainer Eduardo Inda said. "He knew all the grooms. He was good to people on the backside. A lot of the grooms would say, 'Put McCarron on my horse.' They knew he would take care of them."

To several stables, he served not only as a work rider, but also as an advisor.

For more than 20 years, McCarron has been allied with Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally. McCarron rode such McAnally greats as John Henry, Paseana, and Northern Spur, all champions. Hardly a week went by in recent years when McCarron did not guide a McAnally-trained horse to the track for a turf workout.

"We really worked well together," McAnally said. "He told me different things, what to improve. I always told him to tell me if there was something wrong. A lot of trainers don't want to hear, but he always told me.

"He's been very dedicated to the business. That's why he's been so successful. I can't praise him enough."

Trainer Jenine Sahadi credits McCarron for aiding with the development of such major stakes winners as The Deputy, the winner of the 2000 Santa Anita Derby; Golden Ballet, the multiple stakes-winning 3-year-old filly in 2001; and Romanceishope, who won 2001 Del Mar Derby. Those were the good horses - but not every horse turned out so well.

Sometimes, Sahadi was surprised how McCarron phrased information that was not good news. "It's not, 'This horse is a piece of [junk],' but, 'Maybe this horse doesn't have the ability,' " Sahadi said. "I listen to everything he has to say, whether it's equipment or blinkers.

"It makes it easier when the guy on the horse is communicating because the horse isn't. I don't know if I can find someone who can do that in my barn. He didn't have to be there as often as he was. I've got a lot of horses coming back. I don't know who will ride them."

*****

Best in the game

RNKRIDERVICTORIES

1Laffit Pincay Jr.*9,377

2Bill Shoemaker8,833

3Pat Day*8,265

4Russell Baze*7,840

5David Gall7,396

6Chris McCarron*7,137

7Angel Cordero Jr.7,057

8Jorge Velasquez6,795

9Sandy Hawley6,449

10Larry Snyder6,388

RNKRIDEREARNINGS

1Chris McCarron*$264,169,099

2Pat Day*262,452,108

3Laffit Pincay Jr.*229,917,190

4Jerry Bailey*228,755,788

5Gary Stevens*204,864,299

* Active; statistics through 4 p.m. EDT Friday