PROFILE: McCarron sets sights on horse-racing renaissance

As the VP and GM of Santa Anita Park, Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron seeks not only to drive up attendance at the track, but also to renew interest in the sport beyond gambling.

As the VP and GM of Santa Anita Park, Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron seeks not only to drive up attendance at the track, but also to renew interest in the sport beyond gambling.

Santa Anita Park racetrack, located east of Los Angeles, has a colorful history going back to 1934. It boasts being the first track to host a $100,000 race in 1935, has welcomed legends like Seabiscuit, and has captured the interest of nearby Hollywood since the days when Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy owned horses that raced here in the cool winter months. "Countless champions have called Santa Anita home, both equine and human," says Chris McCarron, VP and GM of Santa Anita. McCarron should know. He is one of those champions himself. For decades, his name has dominated the sport as one of the best jockeys to ever occupy the saddle. From 1974, when he rode in his first race at the age of 19, to 2002, when he retired, McCarron won an astonishing 7,141 races - a number matched by only five other jockeys in the history of American racing. That includes two wins each at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. "Everybody knows about the Kentucky Derby," he says, citing his 1987 win on Alysheba as one of his career highlights. (ESPN has called that race "one of the most physical battles in racing history.") "To be able to say you've won [it] puts you on the map. It's life changing. From that point forward you can say you've won the greatest in all of horse racing." When McCarron announced his retirement two years ago, explaining he was simply burned out, he left at the top of his career, with lifetime winnings totaling more than $260 million. For most in that position, sliding out of the stirrups would have meant a future of hobbies and naps. McCarron, however, immediately threw himself into new projects, such as serving as the race designer in the 2003 feature film Seabiscuit. But even that wasn't enough for the 49-year-old father of three. "I'm very energetic," he says. "I knew at some point in the future I would gravitate back toward a full-time job." When Santa Anita offered him the chance to go from the track to the back office, he couldn't pass it up, even though he laments that it "kills him" not to be in the barn every day. Now managing the track's day-to-day business, McCarron says his strong suit is the communications aspect of the job. He often acts as the track's media and public-affairs contact. And he credits racing with honing those abilities. "It's a very competitive sport," he explains. "You have to be skilled not only at communicating with horses, but also at communicating with people. Once the best horses show up, there are dozens of jockeys trying to get on those particular mounts. So you always have to be able to communicate with trainers and owners to sell yourself." Karen Gee-McAuley, SVP of The Blaze Company, which helps the track with PR, says that McCarron brings a "contagious" enthusiasm to his work. "Chris is gracious to everyone he meets," she says. "What we find happening with the media is they become entranced with him because he's the real deal. He speaks passionately about horse racing, can share personal anecdotes from his illustrious career, and speaks from an expert's point of view, which results in the media more fully understanding the 'sport of kings.'" McCarron's priority as one of the most visible and vocal advocates of racing is showcasing the history not just of Santa Anita, but also of the entire sport. "Horse racing already has more than enough people selling the gambling side of it," he says. "I don't come from that part of it. I bet very few times during my career. I'm interested in the beauty and pageantry of the sport, and that's where I am focusing my energy." For example, during racing season, the track hosts a "Seabiscuit Tour" that lets guests see stables, the jockey room, and other behind-the-scenes areas while explaining the legacy of both the track and the sport. "My next challenge is figuring out how to broaden that," McCarron says. In his typical go-for-the-win fashion, he explains that his goal is nothing short of a renaissance for racing, which has been in decline as a spectator sport since gambling laws were relaxed to allow off-track betting. "[The notion] of turning the tide of the decline of on-track attendance is quite simple to understand, but very difficult to achieve," he says. "Since you're able to wager on the races from anywhere, you don't have to come to Santa Anita to participate. What I would like to do is get people back out here. I'd love to see the day come back when you have 40,000 or 50,000 people at the track on a very special day." Chris McCarron 2003-present VP and GM, Santa Anita Park 1974-2002 Hall of Fame jockey who won 7,141 races in his career, including two Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes each, and whose lifetime winnings exceeded $260 million

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