06/23/2002 11:00PM

Only the finest go out a winner


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Balloon wranglers wrestled with their stubborn decorations, drooping and billowing in the mild afternoon breeze, while a rapt crowd of 16,850 looked down upon Chris McCarron, standing before family and friends, dropping names like they were going out of style.

McCarron listed owners, trainers and jockeys. Role models, colleagues and mentors. Assistant starters, veterinarians, even publicists, for goodness sakes!

It was all going fine, too. Grown men were shedding the right amount of tears. Master of ceremonies Mike Willman pulled off the surprise appearance of big brother Gregg McCarron with deft misdirection. And Chris was working gracefully through his farewell speech when he arrived at the part he knew would stick in his throat, the part about his "four queens," his wife, Judy, and their three daughters.

"The most important factor in my success has been, without question, the undying support of my family," he said, choking hard between the words. McCarron came to a full stop. His battle with emotions appeared to be lost. That is when Judy moved closer and whispered in his ear, "I'm going to pinch you."

McCarron grinned and tried to continue. But when his voice caught again, Judy made good on her threat. McCarron's eyes popped wide. This wasn't in the script. Judy's face sparkled with mischief and love, and Chris, now focused, marched on to his heartfelt conclusion:

"I don't see how I can top this."

Okay, so Eleanor Gehrig didn't have to goose her dying Lou on the day he stood before his Yankee fans and told them he considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of this earth." This was a much happier kind of farewell.

June 23, 2002, will go down as a golden day at Hollywood Park, when the best energies of a sport in transition converged to brighten the game. Nobody fell, nothing was vanned off, and the day ended with a symmetry that is rarely achieved, when Came Home gave Chris McCarron win number 7,141.

The McCarron tribute also allowed racing men and women the luxury of sweet reminiscence, free from the usual toxins that cloud conversations with how good the game "used" to be. Sunday at Hollywood Park was exactly as good as the game can be, even now.

"Chris rode my first winner in California, and then my first stakes winner," said New York transplant Howie Zucker, who gave McCarron a great shot to win with his first mount of the day aboard Trackofthecat.

"I'd love for him to win, but if he does, I hope it's not his last." They finished second.

"Somebody asked me if I knew who trained the first stakes winner Chris rode in California," said 80-year-old Warren Stute, who was in the thick of the Sunday crowd. "I said I didn't. It was me!" It was 24 years ago with Happy Home in a division of the Autumn Days Handicap.

"This reminds me a little of Johnny Longden's last ride," Stute went on. "When he won the San Juan in his final ride, there were people crying like babies, everywhere you looked."

McCarron did his best to emulate Longden's theatrics. On John's last day - March 12, 1966 - he won with Chiclero earlier on the card, and the fans were satisfied they had seem him reach the winner's circle for the final time.

McCarron clicked in Sunday's fifth with the filly Blind Ambition.

Then Longden rocked the house by winning the San Juan Capistrano Invitational aboard fourth-choice George Royal, by a nose at the end of a mile and three-quarters.

McCarron's challenge in his final ride was nowhere near as daunting. Came Home has been the best California 3-year-old all year long, and even the weight spread in the Affirmed Handicap offered no plausible excuse for anything less than a conclusive victory.

As the Affirmed approached, everything McCarron did took on a special significance. The last arm though a set of aerodynamic silks. The last snap of the thick rubber band around the wrist. The last time through the jocks' room door - 34,230th to be precise - and that last walk through the paddock to an awaiting Thoroughbred.

"I feel so lucky," said Manny Avila, McCarron's valet, as he watched his boss ascend Came Home. "There will never be another man like him."

That was of little comfort to Paco Gonzalez. The trainer knew Came Home was fully recovered from their Kentucky Derby failure, and that he was training as well if not better than ever. But he was feeling pressure beyond his usual self-inflicted doubts, and the reason was apparent.

"I didn't want to let Chris down," Gonzalez said later.

With the possible exception of Ron McAnally, there is no trainer with whom McCarron has been more deeply rooted simpatico. From the start, they fit like hand and glove. Still, the last race had to be run. As they emerged from the grandstand tunnel - the jockey, the trainer, and the horse - Gonzalez looked up at McCarron one last time.

"Chris, thank you man."

McCarron glanced back and smiled at Gonzalez as Came Home trotted off. He did not have a chance to reply. It was 4:47 p.m., the end of a golden day at the races, and the tote board was flashing 2-5. It was time to go to work.