07/01/2010 11:00PM

Melancon winding career down

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Sunday marks not only the end of the 42-day spring meet at Churchill Downs, but an era of a far longer duration.

Larry Melancon, who began his remarkably productive riding career long before many of the men and women in the current Churchill jockey colony were even born, most likely is retiring, effective with the sixth race on closing day. Melancon, 54, said he might ride sparingly at the upcoming meet at Ellis Park but otherwise intends to take some time off before deciding what he will do next, although he said he hopes to remain in the racing business in some capacity.

Melancon was 16 when he officially began his career in 1971 in his native Louisiana. Through the years, he became known as an underrated and highly capable rider, a skilled technician who amassed more than 2,800 wins and more than $60 million in mount earnings from nearly 21,000 career rides.

In recent weeks, Melancon had been hinting at retirement.

"I feel good, and I feel very blessed that I'm as healthy as I am," he said last month. "But the game's getting younger. One day I'm probably going to have to decide to do something else."

Melancon rode in four runnings of the Kentucky Derby, from 1976 to 2001, with a fourth aboard Amano, a 55-1 shot in 1976, representing his best finish. He enjoyed his best year in 2001, when his mounts earned nearly $6 million. Some of his biggest wins included the 1986 Blue Grass on Bachelor Beau, the 1995 Pennsylvania Derby on Pineing Patty, the 1998 New Orleans Handicap on Phantom On Tour, and the 2001 Stephen Foster on Guided Tour.

Bernie Hettel, a former longtime Kentucky racing official who has worked the last five years as an executive at Gulfstream Park in Florida, has known Melancon virtually his entire career.

"I've been telling Larry for 10 years that he would make a great racing official," said Hettel. "He's smart, level-headed, experienced, and he knows pretty much every aspect of the sport. He's told me he wants to go to stewards' school this fall and see where that takes him, and I've encouraged him to give it a shot."

Fittingly, Melancon's last ride will come aboard War Clan, a 2-year-old filly trained by one of his longest and most loyal supporters, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.