The New York Racing Association is presenting a series of diaries to help celebrate the 150th Runhappy Travers on August 24 at Saratoga Race Course. “In Their Own Words” will feature prominent owners, trainers and jockeys as they re-live some of the most stirring moments in the rich history of the “Mid-Summer Derby.”
I was on a golf course in January 1997 when I received news that was hard to hear and even harder to digest. My mother, Helen, had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Doctors gave her six months to live.
Seven months later, my mother was gone. She died on Tuesday of Travers week at our family's home in Milton, Mass. I was set to ride a top contender, Deputy Commander, in the Travers, a race I had won twice before, when Forty Niner edged Seeking the Gold in 1988 and Corporate Report nipped Hansel in 1991.
Suddenly, chasing that third win did not seem so important. I was consumed by the loss of my mother and all that she had meant to me, my five brothers and three sisters. Even though the funeral was set for Friday, when I arrived in Massachusetts, I told my siblings that I was going to miss the Travers out of respect for our mother.
Not long after that, my brothers and sisters talked among themselves and kind of corralled me in the kitchen. They all had the same message. “She would want you to fulfill your obligations, so you better go and ride.”
I told the trainer, Wally Dollase, that I would get there. I arrived in Saratoga Springs on Saturday morning. Initially, it was hard to focus. Thoughts of the funeral were still so fresh. Once I got to the paddock for the Travers, I kind of went on autopilot. I knew Deputy Commander well. I knew how he needed to be ridden. Everything was very clear in my mind. It was a matter of both of us executing.
Deputy Commander was pretty much a speed horse. He took me to the lead just as I hoped he would. We stayed there until Behrens ranged up and hooked us at the top of the stretch. Deputy Commander and Behrens were essentially matching strides until Behrens poked his head in front with one furlong to go.
I asked Deputy Commander for more, knowing he was a very game individual. Sure enough, he dug down and found more. We inched ahead of Behrens, who was full of fight himself. Deputy Commander would not be denied. It was a furious stretch run, but I could tell we got there by a nose.
When we reached the winner's circle and fans showed their appreciation for Deputy Commander's gutsy performance with a rousing ovation, the emotions of the week got to me. I broke down in tears. I had felt Helen's spirit with me the entire day. As much as she meant to me throughout her life, she carried me through that day.
It was my first truly spiritual experience, and it was overwhelming. Wally and his wife, Cincy, understood what I was going through emotionally. They saw how distraught I was. Even in victory, my sense of loss was so powerful. They could not have been nicer or more understanding.
I composed myself and returned to the jocks' room, eager to call my brothers and sisters who were still together in Massachusetts. Naturally, they were ecstatic for me, appreciating all that had gone into winning a Travers I almost did not ride.
Chris McCarron was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 1989.
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times and numerous horse racing publications.
New to the Paulick Report? Click here to sign up for our daily email newsletter to keep up on this and other stories happening in the Thoroughbred industry.
Copyright © 2020 Paulick Report.