By Ray Paulick
Over 20 years ago, during a trip to Japan to ride Pay the Butler in the Japan Cup and participate in the World Super Jockeys competition, jockey Chris McCarron was asked to speak at the Japan Racing Association's jockey school, where teenagers with professional riding aspirations are taught about the sport, about horses and about life. McCarron was impressed by what he saw, and returned home vowing to someday help start a similar school in the United States.
“We've got the best racing in the world,” he said. “Yet we've never had a place to formally train for a job in the industry as a jockey. There are riding schools around the world. Panama has the most famous one, but there are others, including one in Newmarket, and the oldest one in the world was established in South Africa.”
Following his retirement in 2002, Hall of Famer McCarron ramped up his efforts and sought support for the idea of a jockey school, something the late Hall of Fame Bill Shoemaker toyed with during the latter stages of his career. He met with a group that included Keeneland president Nick Nicholson, who had worked with Shoemaker on the concept, and with seed money provided by Keeneland found a home for the school within the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. McCarron called it a “match made in heaven.”
The North American Racing Academy was launched in the fall of 2006, with a first-year class of 11 students who would spend the next two years in the classroom, getting hands-on training from McCarron and be placed in an internship with a top trainer. The 11 students were selected from more than 50 applicants, and eight of them completed their studies, getting an associate degree. Subsequent classes included 10 students that enrolled in 2007 (six graduated), 17 in 2008 (16 are on target to graduate this spring), and 11 enrolled in the fall of 2009. In addition to those enrolled to learn how to become jockeys, the 2008 enrollment class included eight students on what McCarron calls the “horseman's pathway.”
The North American Racing Academy has a staff of four. McCarron, the director, lectures in the classroom and offers hands-on lessons; there is a second full-time instructor; a barn manager; and a director of program facilities. The NARA is based at the Kentucky Horse Park and uses the Training Center on Paris Park classroom work.
Cost to students ranges from $132 per credit hour for Kentucky residents to $425 per credit hour for out of state students. Seventy hours are required for an associate's degree.
The latter half of 2009 was a bittersweet time for McCarron, who was devastated to see one of NARA's early graduates, Michael Straight, severely injured in a spill at Arlington Park. The final month of the year brought some good news when Ben Creed became the first NARA graduate to win a riding title, when he led all jockeys at the Turfway Park holiday meeting.
Creed is an example, McCarron said, of how students can really blossom during their on-track internships. “He surprised the heck out of me,” McCarron said. “He was not very far along when he was here, but he interned in California with John Sadler and came back a lot more polished. He really came along in a short period of time. Ben is one of those guys like me who had no previous experience at all with horses. He would not have been one of my picks at this time last year to stand out.”
Trainers involved in the internships include Todd Pletcher, Jonathan Sheppard, Shug McGaughey, Nick Zito, Wesley Ward, Doug O'Neill and Tom Proctor, among others. Interns are asked to gallop and breeze horses, clean tack and help around the barn. “I want them to know as much as possible about what it takes to get a horse ready to race in the afternoon,” McCarron said.
McCarron said he is “ecstatic” with the launch and early progress for the North American Racing Academy (which was not named a “riding” academy because he wants it to include programs for prospective grooms and trainers as well as jockeys).
He has even bigger plans for the school's future, including a campus at the Kentucky Horse Park and possible expansion to a second division in the Ocala, Florida, area that would be part of the the Central Florida Community College System.
For more information, click here to visit the web site of the North American Racing Academy.
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