Santa Anita's thoroughbred meeting has some of the most important winter racing in the world, but this year the focus not only is on the $10 million offered in purses but also on a jockey colony of such extraordinary talent and depth that it resembles the Hall of Fame in Saratoga. Willie Shoemaker is there, trying to win his 18th Santa Anita riding championship. Also on hand are Laffit Pincay Jr., five times the nation's leading money-winner, and Sandy Hawley, who has led the land in wins four times since 1970. Steve Cauthen transferred his whip, saddle and halo from New York's frozen carousel to join such stars as Angel Cordero Jr., Fernando Toro and Don Pierce. Even France's premier jockey, Yves Saint-Martin, jumped into the competition.
By last weekend, though, the track's leading rider was neither Cauthen, Shoemaker, Pincay nor Hawley. It was 23-year-old Darrel McHargue, and he had turned the great jockey derby into a walkover. McHargue was winning races out on the lead and coming off the pace; driving mounts through along the rail and looping fast fields on the outside. A jockey for five seasons, McHargue looked like the strongest rider to come out of Oklahoma since Geronimo. His 62 winners led second-place Cauthen by 26, and Cauthen himself was averaging a winner a day. McHargue also guided eight of his first 17 stakes mounts to the winner's circle and finished second five times.
McHargue's remarkable performance has drawn praise from racing people normally unimpressed by fast starts. Jimmy Jones, the trainer of storied Calumet Farm when it had herds of grand runners, said recently, "If I had that Calumet Farm stable today with horses like Citation, Coaltown, Ponder, Bewitch and Two Lea, the stable jock would be Darrel McHargue." Eddie Arcaro, who rode out of that Calumet barn to victory after victory, says, "McHargue has every piece of equipment a race rider needs, and I'll be damned if I know why he hasn't gotten much publicity."
McHargue is 5'1", weighs 112 pounds, has flashing brown eyes, a fine sense of humor and a voice that cracks on occasion. With his Prince Valiant haircut he looks less like a jockey than any of the nation's top riders. "My family has no background in racing," he says. "My father is a mechanic, my two brothers work as an architect and an X-ray technician. My two sisters are housewives. I was up on my fourth horse as a kid back in Oklahoma City and didn't know where I was going. It was a quarter horse, and it threw me and my jaw got broken. During the time I was on the ground before I passed out, I remember saying to myself, 'Darrel, you better start taking riding horses seriously or you aren't going to be around too long.' "
This year McHargue is around the right horses in the right state at the right time. "Before Santa Anita opened," he says, "I read a lot about the amount of riding talent that would be here. The assumption was that for any rider to win the Santa Anita championship, the ball would have to roll his way. Nobody seemed to mention Darrel McHargue. Well, I was the ball out there that felt he could keep rolling."
Two weeks ago McHargue drew the mount on Mr. Redoy in the richest race run thus far in 1978, the $230,200 Charles H. Strub Stakes. While he had ridden Mr. Redoy to victories twice in three outings, McHargue didn't feel he could win the Strub. "As the race came up," he says, "I figured that Mr. Redoy could finish third, probably no better. One morning when I was working the horse, I found that when another horse ran up inside of Mr. Redoy and threw stuff up in his face he would duck in toward the rail. To me that meant that he wanted to be way outside—clear of things inside him."
When the field of nine left the starting gate, McHargue put Mr. Redoy in second position and the 7-to-1 shot ran that way for a mile in the 1¼-mile race. Favored J. O. Tobin moved in front, and approaching the mile marker the second betting choice, Text, came up inside Mr. Redoy. McHargue grabbed his horse and took him back to third.
McHargue let Text go by, then took Mr. Redoy wide and started his move. With a quarter of a mile remaining, McHargue sent Mr. Redoy even further outside and gained ground. First J. O. Tobin came back to him; then, when Text did a cha-cha-cha, McHargue had Mr. Redoy clear and he won by 2½ lengths. "I booked mounts for Darrel for five years," says agent Harry Hacek, "and that was as chilly a ride as you'll see."
It has been a near-perfect year for McHargue—with one long-standing exception. "I'm still looking for that horse," he says. "Ron Turcotte found Secretariat, and the public identified with them. Bill Shoemaker had Round Table and Swaps; Arcaro had Nashua, Citation and Bold Ruler. Jean Cruguet had Seattle Slew. Sure, the money is important, but I'm looking for that horse. I believe that if you work and look hard enough you can find him."
The closest McHargue has came so far is Run Dusty Run, who was second to Seattle Slew in the Derby and Belmont and finished third to Slew in the Preakness. "When I got off Run Dusty Run in the Derby," McHargue says, "there wasn't an excuse in the world. We just got beat. If we go around the track again, Seattle Slew wins it. Lost the Preakness and Belmont, too. Weren't going to win unless Slew fell down. In August I flew out of Del Mar to ride Run Dusty Run in the Travers at Saratoga.
"A lot of people seem to remember that race. It was on national television and we beat Jatski at the wire but got disqualified. When the race was over and Dusty's number came down, I was confused and bewildered. I couldn't walk back to the jocks' room because they knew that I was all out to win and the films would show that I had fouled."
The suspension that followed cost McHargue the Del Mar riding championship, but he came back to become the leading rider at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. "After that," he says, "I figure that any time a jockey has a chance to win a meeting championship he must go for it."
Not long ago McHargue flew to Hialeah to ride Run Dusty Run in a prep race for the $100,000 Challenge Cup and Dusty ran down the track. "I had the option to ride Dusty back in the Challenge Cup," McHargue says, "but by that time I was 10 wins in front of Cauthen here and decided not to go. Don Brumfield rode a tremendous race on the horse and won." When Brumfield won the Seminole at Hialeah last Saturday on Dusty, McHargue remained philosophical about it. "This is the championship I want," he said.
McHargue is on a course that will smash the all-time riding records at Santa Anita. Is he a better rider than Cauthen? "Five years from now Steve Cauthen will look back at the kind of year he had in 1977 and marvel at it," says McHargue. "Heck, I do. Nobody ever did in one year what he did. But now he's having some problems that I can understand. When I first came to California I was very lonely. Oh, the weather was fine, but I'd wake up and look out the window and each day was exactly the same. I had friends and family that I wanted to talk with back home, but there was the time difference and I was getting up at 5:30 in the morning and not getting home until late.
"If Steve was riding back in New York, he might be doing better than he did last year. He came out with Laz Barrera, and so far Laz has only done so-so because of bad weather. Also, I'm getting a better choice of horses. Owners here know that I'll stay around for the entire year, while Steve won't. That gives me an edge. Yet the reason Cauthen is in California is because he's staying close to that one horse that might give him the real identity every jockey truly looks for. He knows that his Derby horse is Affirmed, last year's 2-year-old champion, who is in California. I haven't found mine yet."
But he will.
On a record-setting course, all McHargue lacks is a mount he—and history—can call his own.