04/06/2005 11:00PM

From racetrack to classroom


ARCADIA, Calif. - If you think it's easy being a retired Hall of Fame jockey, take a look at Chris McCarron and think again. The guy can't hold down a job.

First he's a movie consultant for a big Hollywood production, doing "race choreography," which sounds like something the stewards ought to investigate. As it turned out, the racing action was the best part of "Seabiscuit," but did Hollywood call for "Racing Stripes?" Their loss.

Then McCarron flirted briefly with the dark side, donning a suit and tie on a regular basis as general manager of Santa Anita Park. He had a better run than former player Mitch Kupchak has enjoyed recently as the Lakers' GM, but in the end the role did not fit . . . so he quit.

Now McCarron is working on a pet project so dear to his heart that he is willing to leave his deeply embedded California lifestyle and resettle in Kentucky, where he will soon commence applying the finishing touches to a blueprint for a school to train young jockeys in the skills they will need to both thrive and survive in one of the sporting world's most dangerous professions.

More than a jockey school, McCarron is referring to the endeavor as a "racing academy."

"I don't want to only teach young people to be jockeys," McCarron said. "There will be some kids who grow too quickly and grow out of it. There will also be those who crash and burn a couple of times and decide, 'This isn't for me. I don't want to fall off going 40 miles an hour.' We'll encourage those indivuals to stay in the program, finish the course, and we will place them in jobs in whatever capacity they desire, whether as a groom, exercise rider, or working on a farm."

McCarron and his wife, Judy, will be heading for Kentucky later this month. But first, on Saturday, as fans gather here for the Santa Anita Derby program, McCarron will be subjected to a special ceremony which will no doubt include fond reminiscences of his attractive record at Santa Anita Park.

These will include his three victories in the Santa Anita Handicap aboard Alysheba, Free House, and Tiznow, his four winners of the San Juan Capistrano - particularly with the father-son team of Bien Bien and Bienamado - and his five victories in the Santa Margarita Handicap with Glorious Song, Lovlier Linda, Bayakoa, Paseana, and Twice the Vice. Among others.

In fact, if McCarron is smart (duh), he will be using his Santa Anita experiences as course curricula at CJU - or whatever he calls it - in order to bring dry theory to vivid life for his students. This will be kind of like learning how to paint from Picasso, or to bait a hook by watching Hemingway.

Okay then students, turn in your text to the chapter called "Santa Anita Derby." There will be a quiz later.

McCarron won the local Derby four times, while coming up short with such high-profile runners as Desert Wine, Precisionist, and Artax. Three of those four winners went on to run in the Kentucky Derby with McCarron still attached.

Neither Came Home (2002) nor The Deputy (2000) showed up with much enthusiasm on the big day at Churchill Downs. But Cavonnier (1996) ran well enough to lose the Kentucky Derby by less than any other horse in the history of the race, when Grindstone beat him a half a nose.

"I was a little surprised when he was 10-1 in the Santa Anita Derby," McCarron recalled. "Some people thought he was an underachiever, but I felt just the opposite. He was a nice horse who really laid his body down every time he ran - a true overachiever. After the Santa Anita Derby I definitely thought he was the kind of horse who could win the Kentucky Derby, and he probably would have if he hadn't been smacked across the face with another jock's whip."

As for riding fillies against colts - as Corey Nakatani will be doing on Sweet Catomine in the Santa Anita Derby - McCarron managed to win a Hollywood Turf Cup aboard Miss Alleged, but had no luck against males with champions Paseana and Flawlessly.

"I'm not a big proponent of running fillies against colts, unless the colts show some weakness," McCarron said. "But I do think Marty Wygod and Julio Canani are doing the right thing with Sweet Catomine, because I don't think it's a real strong crop out here right now.

"I've always gone along with Ron McAnally's philosophy. It takes an outstanding filly, obviously. But it also takes a very masculine type of filly to overcome any bumping and jostling."

McCarron never rode a filly in the Santa Anita Derby. However, he once had a great view of one, back in 1988, when he gave futile chase to Winning Colors while aboard San Felipe Stakes winner Mi Preferido. The filly won by 7 1/2 lengths, while Mi Preferido finished third.

"She was up there flying, while I was kind of niggling on my colt to maintain my second position and keep in touch," McCarron said. "At the three-eighths pole I just kept thinking, 'She's got to come back. She's got to come back.' Instead, that big old gray rear end of hers was just getting smaller and smaller."