06/18/2002 11:00PM

One last turn in the spotlight


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Chris McCarron Retirement Tour will be short and sweet. On Friday night, he rides in the NTRA All-Star Jockey Championship at Lone Star Park. On Saturday and Sunday he competes back home at Hollywood Park. Then, on Monday, as one career ends and another begins, McCarron will turn his energies toward issues near and dear to his heart.

The safety and welfare of riders and horses are high atop McCarron's list. Everything he does in the game, from this day forward, will be aimed in those directions. If the past is prologue, he will be a formidable advocate, articulate, passionate, and now equipped with that most dangerous of all weapons: complete independence.

At the age of 47, McCarron is financially set. He is politically hip and PR savvy. After Sunday there will be no more trainers to coddle, no more owners to massage, no more daily threats to his own safety and welfare beyond the damaging psychological effects of the occasional three-putt green.

As a result, McCarron will be able to stand as an unfettered spokesman for active riders in every corner of the game. He already has promised a large chunk of his time to the Jockeys' Guild as both a director and Guild representative on the NTRA's racehorse medication policy committee. He can even see the day when the Guild itself will take the initiative in national advertising campaigns, especially if racetracks continue to underestimate the promotional value of jockeys.

"If we fail to persuade the tracks that we are marketable, and that we can be a draw for fans, then the Jockeys' Guild will develop plans to increase interest in what we do," McCarron said, "and to show what level of skill it takes to do the job we do, what level of courage it requires."

From its inaugural presentation in 1997, the All-Star Jockey Championship at Lone Star has been a success. McCarron's participation on Friday, just two days before his final ride, is a happy coincidence. The Lone Star commitment was made before he decided to retire. As a result, he will have one last national stage on which to display his considerable talents - if the horses are willing.

Even with all the attention over his pending retirement, there is no way McCarron will steal the show from a lineup that includes Laffit Pincay Jr., Russell Baze, Alex Solis, Mike Smith, Corey Lanerie, Jorge Chavez, Victor Espinoza, John Velasquez, Edgar Prado, David Flores, and Robbie Albarado, not to mention the honored guest of the All-Star Championship, Daily Racing Form executive columnist Joe Hirsch.

In fact, the All-Star Jockey Championship is such a well-established good idea that it needs to go truly national. Lone Star and its president, Corey Johnsen, get high marks for their cooperation with the NTRA and the Jockeys' Guild in setting the standard. Now it may be time to leave the nest.

"I couldn't agree more," McCarron said. "It should be like the baseball All-Star game. Let's change the venue. Let's give fans around the country an opportunity to get autographs, meet the riders, and get to know them close up."

The impact could be sensational. Tracks like Emerald Downs, Monmouth Park, Del Mar, and Calder would serve as ideal summertime sites for an All-Star celebration. Why not have fans vote for the jockeys they want to see compete, using a national ballot that parallels Major League Baseball.

Moving the site could help preserve the All-Star Championship, as well. With U.S. racetrack ownership in a constant state of flux, no single management should be entrusted to maintain the event.

Lone Star, for example, is in the process of being sold to Magna Entertainment, and Magna already has been proven an unreliable steward of a similar event - the International Jockey Challenge - which was dropped this year at Santa Anita Park after being established by the previous ownership.

In addition to an exciting program of racing (these guys take it very seriously), the All-Star Championship raises money for the Disabled Riders' Endowment maintained by the Guild. McCarron was on his way to Grand Prairie early Thursday in order to participate in an All-Star fund-raiser at a local golf course.

"I'll be on one of the par threes, challenging the groups that come through to bet me 20 or 30 bucks that they can put it closer to the pin," McCarron said before leaving town. "If they do, they double their money. If they don't, the charity gets the money."

Talk about pressure. McCarron welcomed any edge he could get. After all, his golf swing has had to survive a damaged shoulder, a broken arm, two broken legs, and a shattered hip socket that left him with a left leg one-quarter inch longer than the right.

"Corey Johnsen asked if I had a preference," McCarron said. "I told him I'd like to be able to use a 7-iron, so he placed me on a 150-yard hole."

See, retirement already has its privileges.