06/19/2002 11:00PM

Thanks for the memories, Chris


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was always easy to spot Chris McCarron at morning workouts. He was the guy wearing the bright yellow flak jacket, as he was Tuesday morning at Santa Anita, guiding Came Home through a half-mile breeze.

Morning workouts will not be the same after Sunday, when McCarron retires. No more yellow flak jacket whizzing by on the back of an eager Thoroughbred. No more scurrying barn to barn. McCarron would pop one from the gate, work another in company on turf. One morning it took McCarron 25 minutes to persuade Tiznow that a one-mile work was just what he needed in order to win the Breeders' Cup Classic for the second straight year.

That's how McCarron will be remembered - as a "money rider." He won 24 riding titles in California, but he also was the "go-to" guy when the purses got large. It was a reputation as legitimate as the horses he rode in the country's most celebrated races. For a racing fan, indeed for a bettor, many of those races will never fade from memory.

McCarron did not intend for his career to be a decades-long handicapping lesson. But it was. McCarron's left-handed stick and ability to find position, his prowess on turf, and keen rationing of speed defined the craftsman he became. To some degree, McCarron's career also can be defined by stakes he won, others he lost, and the schooling he gave rookie riders and inexperienced handicappers. While there are too many races to recall, several stand out.

There was that one summer day in 1984. McCarron was riding the front-running demon Precisionist in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. Back then, the race for 3-year-olds was run over 1 1/4 miles. It certainly was beyond the range of a hot-blooded colt who in three previous routes set the pace, tired, and lost as the heavy favorite. The 1 1/4-mile Swaps was just too far.

McCarron did not buy it. He believed Precisionist could stay. "He was an extremely nervous 2-year-old, a hyper 3-year-old, and as he got through his 3-year-old season he started to come back and settle down a little bit," McCaron said. "Precisionist was the type that the more hold you took of him, the harder he pulled and the more energy we took out of each other."

By July, McCarron and Precisionist were coming into their own as a team. Precisionist was 7-2 in the Swaps, facing a good field that included Ocean View, ridden by Bill Shoemaker. Precisionist set the pace, trying to stretch his speed. On the far turn, Ocean View loomed a threat.

"Shoe ranged up to me at the five-sixteenths pole, and he wasn't really getting after [Ocean View] yet, and it looked like he had a hell of a shot to just come and get us. I just kind of hit the throttle a little bit and the race was over. I asked him to run, he just dropped down and sailed out. He galloped."

Precisionist left his rivals stunned, instantly turning a two-length lead into seven. He won by 10, in a blazing 1:59.80. Speed on the lead. It left an impression, like so many other big races.

Like how McCarron and Alysheba nearly fell down in the 1987 Kentucky Derby, but got up off the deck, and blew past Bet Twice in deep stretch.

Or the 1994 Kentucky Derby, in which McCarron and Go for Gin took command early and never looked back. McCarron never was more cool than the 1997 Belmont, when he made the lead with Touch Gold, let the field run past him on the backstretch, then came on again and won going away.

One of the greatest races McCarron rode was one he lost. It was fall 1993, in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Eddie Delahoussaye rode favorite Hollywood Wildcat, a 3-year-old filly who had never met a mare like the McCarron-ridden Paseana.

At the three-eighths pole, Hollywood Wildcat and Delahoussaye were in command, two-wide and pressing the pace. McCarron respected Hollywood Wildcat, but his mount Paseana was battle-tested, a nine-time Grade 1 winner. McCarron and Paseana attacked early, three furlongs from home. Put the younger filly's feet to the fire and make her crack. Right?

"Put it to her, that's correct," McCaron said. "I was going to go ahead and put it to her, and have [Paseana] prove that her experience and domineering nature would win out in the end." Paseana went after Hollywood Wildcat at the three-eighths and they hooked up in one of the year's memorable races.

Hollywood Wildcat on the inside. Paseana outside, at her throat. Hollywood Wildcat refused to yield, but Paseana was relentless. They turned into the stretch almost a team, but Paseana could not get by. McCarron's aggressive tactics on Paseana were the right move - her rival was something special.

"Unfortunately, Hollywood Wild-cat was extremely good and Eddie rode her very well. He dropped his stick, but he didn't lose his composure. He just came down there pumping hard like he always does. It was a great race." Hollywood Wildcat won by a nose.

There are too many great races involvng McCarron to recall.

On Tuesday morning, when someone remarked how different it will be, not seeing the trademark yellow flak jacket on the racetrack, McCarron pondered the thought.

"I could give it to someone, another rider," he said, laughing.

No, keep it. Without the right man, it wouldn't be the same.