01/11/2006 12:00AM

McCarron's proudest feat yet


ARCADIA, Calif. - On Saturday afternoon, Santa Anita Park management will take the unusual step of honoring a former general manager with the unveiling of a bronze bust in the lush paddock gardens.

In this case, however, Chris McCarron is getting busted not for his short stint in the executive suite, but for the breadth and depth of his work between Santa Anita's white rails. His bronze, by the brilliant Nina Kaiser, will sit stage left in a newly configured island of statuary near the paddock, joining the images of John Longden, Bill Shoemaker, and Laffit Pincay.

"When I first moved to California, I used to walk past the bronzes of Shoe and John and think how awesome that must be to have a statue put up for you," McCarron said Wednesday. "Back then, I fantasized about winning the Kentucky Derby or being elected to the Hall of Fame, but I never went so far as to fantasize about something like a statue. I'm incredibly thrilled and flattered, but I really wonder if I'm worthy of it."

McCarron's stats, while they don't reach the levels of Shoemaker or Pincay, say that he certainly belongs in their proximate company. Of his lifetime win total - 7,141 - a robust 1,613 were recorded at Santa Anita, good for third on the local list behind Pincay (2,860) and Shoemaker (2,247). McCarron retired in 2002 with mount earnings of nearly $264 million, with a significant hunk accrued through 242 Santa Anita stakes victories that included three Santa Anita Handicaps, four Santa Anita Derbies, four San Juan Capistranos, and six Santa Margaritas.

As it turned out, track management was not the niche Chris McCarron was looking for in retirement, just as his critically praised work as race designer for "Seabiscuit" was pretty much a one-shot Hollywood deal. He moved on, all the way to Kentucky, where he is in the final stages of preparation before the launch of his brainchild, the North American Racing Academy.

As the academy's founder, McCarron has pledged to provide young men and women with a soup-to-nuts curriculum in the care, training, and riding disciplines of Thoroughbred racehorses. He has assembled an impressive array of allies in the Lexington area - including the Kentucky Horse Park, the Keeneland Association, and the University of Kentucky - in his quest to provide a nationally recognized institution that can produce qualified jockeys, grooms, and exercise riders.

"My idea is for a two-year course," McCarron said. "Eighteen months at the school and then another six months' internship with a trainer somewhere around the country.

"We're going to be headquartered at the Horse Park, where both the classroom and the hands-on work with the horses will take place," he said. "They have a half-mile training track we can use - all it needs is a resurfacing and a safety rail. And there is a turf course at the Horse Park as well, under the authority of the High Hope Steeplechase Committee. I'm hoping we can get permission to use that course to gallop and breeze."

According to McCarron, the Kentucky Community and Technical College system has offered to help design the NARA curriculum, affording students college credits in the process, while the administration of Bluegrass College has promised access to dormitory facilities at the University of Kentucky.

"The website will be up and running in about a week," McCarron said. The address, he noted, will be naracingacademy.com.

As legacies go, founding and nurturing a national academy of horsemanship would be one of which any former Hall of Fame jockey could be proud. To hear the enthusiasm in his voice, McCarron clearly has found a project that has captured him heart and soul.

The launch of the racing academy comes at a time when McCarron's otherwise admirable reputation has taken a hit over his role in originally bringing to power the recently ousted Jockeys' Guild president, Wayne Gertmenian. McCarron followed up his emotional testimony during a congressional hearing into the tumultuous state of Gertmenian's guild management with a back-page mea culpa - sorta - in The Blood-Horse magazine's "Final Turn."

"Obviously, I feel responsible for bringing Gertmenian to the Guild," McCarron wrote. "But I do not feel responsible for what transpired after I did my best to inform many Guild members of my [subsequent] concerns."

Whether or not McCarron's reputation can be salvaged among his former colleagues remains to be seen. To the broader racing public, he will always remain the cool, calculating "C.J." in the saddle, never blessed with the natural talent of a Pincay or Shoemaker, but always managing to find himself in the right place, in the big race, with the right horse, whether it was John Henry, Alysheba, Paseana, Glorious Song, Flying Paster, Bien Bien, or Tiznow. Accordingly, he takes the honor of his Santa Anita bronze with a dose of sincere humility.

"I've heard the saying - sometimes you're the statue, and sometimes you're the pigeon," McCarron said. "But in this case, I'll be thrilled to death for some pigeon to drop on me anytime."