- Bill Finley
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Imagine taking a 10-pound apprentice with little experience and no history of success and putting him aboard the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby. No one would ever do it. Normally, you don't take someone without a track record and put him in charge of something important.
Frank Stronach would never take such a chance with one of his top racehorses, but he's done virtually the same thing with one of his top racetracks. When Stronach announced earlier this month that 48-year-old former jockey Chris McCarron had been named general manager of Santa Anita, he was in effect saying he was turning over the reins of one of his prized properties to someone with no background in the field of racetrack management. Stronach has always done things differently, but, even for him, this was an astonishing move.
McCarron, who retired last June, was, of course, one of the greatest jockeys ever, but just what does he know about simulcast rates, concessions and parking, manure removal or negotiating contracts with the mutuel clerks? The answer is very little. Even McCarron admits he is anxious because, he says, "this is new territory." He should also be a little worried about Stronach's history. Be it a trainer or a racetrack general manager, when you come to work for Frank Stronach there's never exactly been a lot of job security.
McCarron is faced with a tremendous challenge and it will not be easy for him to succeed, or even survive, under the demanding eye of his new boss. But it does not mean he's sure to fail. If any former jockey can pull this off, it is Chris McCarron.
Stronach clearly downplayed McCarron's lack of experience and instead chose to focus on his attributes, of which there are many. For one, he's smart. Jockeys, many of whom begin their professional careers in their teens, tend to have limited educations and their worldly knowledge may not extend beyond what happens within the narrow confines of the racetrack gates. That, at least, is the stereotype. Then there are the exceptions, the McCarrons, Jerry Baileys, Gary Stevens, those who flourish on the racetrack in part because of their intelligence. They are polished, bright and articulate and seem comfortable in the world outside the racetrack. It's not hard picturing them as a business executive, little guys in expensive suits.
McCarron is also obviously driven to succeed. That's the only way you can put together a 28-year Hall of Fame career during which you've won every big race imaginable. And he loves the sport and has immense knowledge of many facets of the game, those that don't involve the executive suite. So he's no dummy and he's motivated. Is that enough?
His main experience in management comes from his role with the Jockeys' Guild, where he was one of the driving forces behind a coup that resulted in the dismissal of executive director John Giovanni and the resignation of President Pat Day. But there will be new challenges and very different responsibilities when he gets settled in at his new job, the type he never expected he'd face upon his retirement last June.
"When I retired, I didn't have any set plans," said McCarron, who spent his initial post-retirement months working on the movie Seabiscuit. "But I knew I wanted to do something. I'm not the type of person who would be happy sitting around playing golf every day. I'm active and have a lot of energy and I like to get involved in projects. But it looked like it was going to take me some time to figure out what I wanted to do next. As it turns out, I can't believe this opportunity came about."
Then Stronach called. The next thing he knew he was flown off to Florida to meet with Stronach and his board and, out of nowhere, he was handed the job running one of America's greatest racetracks.
I'd love to know what McCarron has planned, but he sidestepped the question.
"I knew I'd be asked that question, but I'm not prepared to answer it," he said. "I want to find out what has been tried and tested over there, what has worked and what hasn't, before going forward."
That's fine. A little diplomacy isn't a bad thing to bring to a job.
But one thing McCarron must do is to try and revive live business, which has proven to be the greatest challenge out there for most racing executives. Only 25,160 attended this year's Santa Anita Handicap, the smallest crowd in the history of the race. McCarron knows what he will be selling. He just has to figure out how to do it.
"My adrenaline will be pumping like crazy," he said. "That will be due to the fact that Santa Anita is the 'Great Race Place' and I want to do whatever I can to continue and enhance that image. I don't think there's a racetrack in the country that is a finer venue. I was here the other morning, a beautiful March morning. The skies were clear and the setting was gorgeous and I just thought about what a first class place this is."
Chris McCarron will be different, that's for sure. And maybe that's not a bad thing. Racing has been run by the same people with the same ideas for a long time and the results have been unimpressive. He deserves a chance. It's horse racing. Longshots come in.