The racing industry is constantly searching for positive signs for what lies ahead. One encouraging indication is Chris McCarron’s North American Racing Academy, which gives horse racing’s future jockeys, trainers, and industry workers an in-depth, hands-on, high-quality education in the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing. It is inspiring to see someone such as the highly acclaimed Hall of Fame rider, Chris McCarron, continue to work passionately to improve the sport.
Chris McCarron followed his older brother, Gregg, into jockeying and began riding professionally in 1974. McCarron had immediate success on the east coast, and won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey. Three years later, he won the first of his three Kentucky Oaks, and began riding on the Californian racing circuit.
When he retired in June of 2002, McCarron ranked as Thoroughbred racing’s all-time leader in purse earnings exceeding $264 million. He rode nine Breeders’ Cup winners to victory, five of which were in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He won each of the Triple Crown races two times, and piloted champions such as Alysheba, Go for Gin, John Henry, Lady’s Secret, Sunday Silence, Tiznow, and Touch Gold.
Still active as a professional jockey, Chris McCarron first envisioned starting a riding academy in America after addressing a school for riders in Japan. In July of 2005, seven months after resigning from his position as Vice President and General Manager of Santa Anita Park in California, he announced his plans to open North America’s first riding academy that would “provide students with the education, training, and experience needed to become skilled in the art of race-riding, proficient in the care and management of racehorses, and knowledgeable about the workings of the racing industry as a whole,” as the mission statement says.
The North American Racing Academy (N.A.R.A) also includes a horsemen’s program for those who look towards a future in working jobs at the racetrack that does not involve riding. The two year program for both riding and horsemen ends with an internship at a racetrack, and the students earn an Associate Degree in Equine Science from the Kentucky Community and Technical College.
Though N.A.R.A is not the first school geared towards horse racing, it is the first and only school for those aspiring to become professional jockeys in North America. For years, schools for jockeys in Panama, Venezuela, and Ireland have existed, and all have proven to be successful. Indubitably, each of these schools, including N.A.R.A, is improving the quality of horse racing by producing a solid foundation for future industry leaders.
The trackwork takes place at The Thoroughbred Center in Lexington. Owned by Keeneland Association, The Thoroughbred Center is a racehorse training facility that sits on 240 acres, and stables up to 1,000 horses. The Thoroughbred Center is in the heart of the Bluegrass, surrounded by breeding farms and located only fifteen minutes away from Keeneland Racecourse, which celebrated its 75th anniversary this year. The horses used for the trackwork are retired racehorses which have been donated to N.A.R.A.
At Keeneland’s September yearling sale, I had the good fortune of being introduced to Chris McCarron, who invited me to visit his barn at The Thoroughbred Center. Teaching by example, McCarron arrives at the barn before dawn to instruct the students on every aspect of the multifaceted horse racing industry.
Upon my arrival at the facility, his barn was in full swing, bustling with the morning’s activities. Students were riding to and from the track, horses were being saddled and unsaddled as Chris McCarron and his assistants remained attentive to the students needs. As I walked through the barn, I noticed an assistant was teaching a student to bridle a reluctant horse with the utmost patience and care.
Later in the morning, I accompanied McCarron and a group of beginner students on horseback to an outside riding ring. He taught the students the essential basics in riding at a walk, trot, and canter. Nineteen year old Jesse Sauder, a first semester N.A.R.A. student is a prime example of dedication you will find at the school. He was not able to ride that morning due to a car accident earlier this year. In the accident, he suffered life threatening injuries in which he fractured his C1, C2 vertebrae, which typically results in being paralyzed. His surgery on June 14th left him in a halo brace for three months. The determined Sauder refused to miss his scheduled admissions interview with McCarron only one short week following his surgery.
All of the students’ drive and determination to be successful in the Thoroughbred horse racing industry is fueled by McCarron’s dedication to the N.A.R.A. in hopes to provide not just well prepared jockeys but also good horsemen into a constantly evolving industry.
Chris McCarron's legacy will reach far beyond his monumental achievements as a jockey. Throughout the North American Thoroughbred horse racing industry he is providing a solid foundation and improving the odds for success, for impassioned horse racing enthusiasts to embark on a difficult and exciting career.