No. 2 – 1997 – As Good As It Gets
Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron was almost killed riding against Deputy Commander in the $500,000 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park in 1997. McCarron was riding Hello, who suffered a compound fracture of his left front leg during the race and had to be euthanized. McCarron was thrown clear of his horse and suffered an injured left shoulder. Deputy Commander, trained by Wally Dollase, finished second in the Swaps to heavily-favored Free House.
For Deputy Commander’s next start, Dollase was pointing him to the $400,000 Secretariat Stakes on turf at Arlington Park on August 24th. The $1 million Travers was the day before, but Dollase had no intention in hooking three outstanding three-year-olds headed for the Midsummer Derby: Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm; Free House and Touch Gold, who denied Silver Charm the 1997 Triple Crown by edging him in the Belmont Stakes. But when word came out that all three accomplished colts were not going to make the Travers, Dollase went to Plan B, which was to saddle his first starter ever at Saratoga in the Travers. Deputy Commander would also shed blinkers and change riders to McCarron, who had been committed to Touch Gold.
Across the country, trainer Jim Bond had been pointing his three-year-old colt Behrens to the Travers all year long, hoping for a rare Travers double. Bond, who had been based at Finger Lakes, had won the 1996 Travers with Will’s Way, who defeated Louis Quatorze and Skip Away the year before. Behrens would have the services of Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey.
McCarron was playing golf in California on the Tuesday before the Travers when he received a tragic phone call. His mom, Helen, had succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 74. “I was on a plane that night and flew home to Boston,” McCarron said.
With his dad, five brothers and three sisters, McCarron tried dealing with his grief. “We had the wake for my mother on Thursday and the funeral on Friday,” McCarron said. “I was basically ready to cancel my trip to Saratoga.”
His family convinced him that he shouldn’t, that his mother would have wanted him to ride in the Travers. “I’m really sure, there’s no doubt in my mind, that that’s what she wanted,” McCarron said. “I don’t have any regrets.”
Jim Bond’s attention was on the weather. Behrens had finished fourth to Awesome Again in his final start before the Travers, the Jim Dandy Stakes, which was also Behrens’ first start on a sloppy track. Bond didn’t want the Travers to be his second.
But right after the final race on Friday, the day before the Travers, a typically savage thunderstorm ripped through Saratoga, pounding the track with golf-size hail and torrential rain.
A sloppy track seemed inevitable, but track superintendent Don Orlando would have none of that. Starting as soon as the rain subsided late Friday afternoon and working almost all night, Orlando’s crew actually produced a fast track the following afternoon for the Travers.
When he arrived in the Saratoga Jockeys Room Saturday, McCarron tried to keep his head together: “I was pretty quiet. I was just hoping that I was doing the right thing. It’s hard to out-perform Bailey even when you’re at 100 percent.”
Few of his fellow riders knew that McCarron had just lost his mother, but Dollase did. And he told McCarron in the paddock before the Travers, “You don’t have to do this.” McCarron responded, “My mother would want me to.”
McCarron settled Deputy Commander in third early, then went after dueling leaders Affirmed Success and Twin Spires. But Bailey had Behrens rolling on the outside.
They hooked up at the eighth pole and went nose-to-nose the rest of the way: Deputy Commander and McCarron on the inside and Behrens and Bailey on the outside. Two Hall of Fame jockeys battling shoulder to shoulder the length of the stretch, until they crossed the wire in tandem, Deputy Commander a scant nose in front.
McCarron was okay until he returned to the winner’s circle and saw Dollase’s wife Cindy crying. “That’s when I lost it,” he said.
Bond took the loss hard. “It hurt bad, just because we had got the taste of winning the year before,” he said. “It was sickening. That was my hardest defeat. It burned a hole in me, and that hole will be there for the rest of my life.”
Regardless, Bond watched the replay that night with his wife Tina, who consoled him: “Maybe somebody needed it more. Maybe Chris needed that uplifting to get on with his whole life.”
Years later, Bond said, “She was probably right, but at that point of time, it was hard to get through my thick skull. He lost by a lip.”
Photo courtesy of NYRA