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McCarthy hopes his Irish eyes are smiling in winner’s circle Saturday

Stars were aligned for jockey to get call on Pierrot Lunaire

Posted: November 21, 2013 11:09 a.m.
Updated: November 22, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Everyone wants to dance with the homecoming queen. But getting that chance is usually reserved for the guy who brought her to the ball.
There are those rare occasions however, when a wandering eye leads one astray.
In a roundabout way, that is how Willie McCarthy grabbed the ride aboard 2012 Eclipse Award winner for steeplechasing and last year’s National steeplechase Association Lonesome Glory Champions Award recipient Pierrot Lunaire.
Last fall, Pierrot Lunaire came from, virtually, out of nowhere to score an upset win --- at odds of better than 49-to-1 --- to capture the $150,000 Lonesome Glory Stakes at Belmont Park. The then-8-year-old War Chant gelding followed that by giving owner Mrs. Calvin Houghland a victory in this country’s richest steeplechase, the $250,000 Grand National at Far Hills, N.J., holding off Divine Fortune by three-quarters of a length.
Camden’s Bernie Dalton was in the irons for Pierrot Lunaire’s two scores which sewed up the aforementioned awards. But American chasing’s newest sensation skipped last year’s Colonial Cup and then, was sidelined by an injury which led to Pierrot Lunaire’s missing the NSA’s 2013 spring and summer campaigns.
In the meantime, Dalton took a ride aboard the Jonathan Sheppard-trained Italian Wedding, a lightly regarded 8-year-old which had almost been an afterthought following a win in the $75,000 Michael G. Walsh Novice Stakes at Saratoga in 2011. After a winless 2012 campaign, which included a fourth in last year’s Colonial Cup feature, Sheppard and Dalton caught lightning in a bottle as Italian Wedding followed up a second in the $100,000 A.P. Smithwick at Saratoga this past summer by capturing the $150,000 New York Turf Writers Cup (Gr. I) at the Spa in August.
With Italian Wedding rolling, Dalton had a decision to make. Would he stay on the hot horse or, go back to Pierrot Lunaire, who was being primed to make his return over fences in last month’s feature at Far Hills? Dalton never hesitated in deciding to stay with a horse which was coming into its own as opposed to a proven commodity which was returning from the disabled list.
“At that stage,” Dalton said, “I had already told Mr. Sheppard that I would be happy to ride Italian Wedding in the Lonesome Glory. At that point, he was the ‘form’ horse. I wasn’t going to get off him.”
Dalton’s polite decline of the ride back on Pierrot Lunaire led its trainer, Bruce Miller, to search for another rider on his defending champion. Again, Miller turned to another Irishman, like Dalton. This time, the choice was McCarthy.
A 30-year-old native of County Cork, McCarthy came to America in 2010 with a five-year visa in hand after having been a professional jockey in his native country and England. After having galloped his final horse of the day for trainer Mickey Preger Jr. at the Camden Training Center on Wednesday, McCarthy smiled when talking about getting the ride on Pierrot Lunaire, one of 13 jumpers expected to meet the starter’s flag in Saturday’s $100,000 Colonial Cup Steeplechase (Gr. I).
“Luckily enough,” McCarthy said in a pronounced brogue, “I’m not attached to a big outfit. I’m riding for anybody and everybody.
“Bruce Miller called me up during the summer and asked if I would be interested in riding (Pierrot Lunaire) if Bernie was not available; the horse did not run in the spring because of an injury. He recovered from his injury and he was set to run in the fall. In the meantime, Bernie picked up the ride on Italian Wedding and struck up a great partnership with him.
“Bernie had a very hard choice to make; to get off the horse of the year from last year or, stick with the horse he’d been winning on all summer. He decided to stick with Italian Wedding. Luckily for me, I was waiting in the wings and Bruce was good enough to call me up.”
McCarthy, who has six rides in as many jump races on Saturday at the Springdale Race Course, has steadily received better mounts in his stay in this country. He said that led to his getting the call from Miller to gauge his interest in riding the reigning Eclipse Award winner.
Not so surprisingly, his fellow Irish native, Dalton, was more than happy to give McCarthy some tips as to how Pierrot Lunaire liked to be ridden before last month’s $250,000 Far Hills feature. Dalton, it should be noted, was also in that race aboard Italian Wedding.
McCarthy said it was hardly out of the ordinary for Dalton to lend a helping hand. “Bernie was very helpful,” he said. “Bernie’s a very good friend of mine and he’s been very helpful out here, as well. He told me exactly about the horse and how to ride him. Everything he told me was to the letter … to the ‘T’.
“He knows the horse better than anybody. I’m just glad to be on (Pierrot Lunaire), to tell you the truth.”
Taking what he learned from Dalton and getting a feel for his first-time mount, McCarthy let Pierrot Lunaire settle in as the pair sat in 10th place --- out of 11 starters --- after the first mile of the 2 5/8-mile Grand National journey. McCarthy asked his horse for more at the top of the stretch as they moved from eighth to fourth. But they would be unable to improve on that in coming home fourth.
While not able to defend his crown in that race, McCarthy said Pierrot Lunaire still had plenty left in the tank for Saturday’s season finale at Springdale, a chase which has all kind of championship implications surrounding the Camden fall classic.
“Everything went good. It was great to get a feel for the horse,” McCarthy said in looking back on the Grand National performance. “It was a very good race. Unfortunately, he probably didn’t get the best trip in the race but he came with a wet sail at the finish. He was a very fast finishing fourth and didn’t have a hard race by any means.
“He’s a fresh horse coming into the Colonial Cup. I think the track is going to suit him better.
Things have steadily been looking up for McCarthy, who is coming off tying for fifth place in the 2012 NSA leading rider standings after posting 10 victories. He needs one win on Saturday to equal that figure. He is tied with Robbie Walsh for sixth place with nine wins each in the 2013 rider chase for the title.
A member of family which has deep roots in National Hunt Racing in Ireland, McCarthy rode both as an amateur before turning professional in 2005, winning his first race as a professional that year aboard Toulouse Lautrec at Plumpton Racecourse in East Sussex, England in 2005. When the better rides started to dry up there, McCarthy decided to try his luck on this side of the Atlantic where the chasing was different from his experience in Ireland and England.
McCarthy said he found out quickly that American chasing and its courses were not like those back home.
“Racing seems to be a lot faster over here because of the firmer ground and, typically, the races are two miles, two and a quarter miles and, sometimes, three miles,” he said. “The races home are further distances and over heavy ground. It’s a different type of racing.
“At home, you can jump off in a two-mile race and be last at the beginning and still win the race from there. Typically, over here, I’ve found that I like to be close to the pace and save all the ground that I can.”
An unproven commodity when he first started racing in NSA events, the newcomer McCarthy was not put on the best horses the circuit had to offer. He was forced to prove himself, just as he was when he first started racing in Ireland and England.
“When I came here,” he said, “it was like starting out all over again. I was riding a good quality of horses for quite a while when I was in England. Then, when I came back over here, it was like I was starting all over again. People were good enough to start putting me on some better horses, then.”
One of those people was Camden-based trainer and former NSA champion rider Arch Kingsley. But it took a cold call from the McCarthy to set the wheels in motion on a horse which would bring McCarthy out of the shadows in American chasing circles.
“I called Arch up and he was running in a maiden in the Queens Cup,” McCarthy said. “I just had the (nerve) to call him up and ask for the ride. I never looked back after that.”
That horse was Baltic Shore. The horse and rider joined forces in 2011, winning a $15,000 maiden chase at Colonial Downs in May of 2011 before finishing second in a $58,000 allowance chase at Saratoga in August of that year.
Baltic Shore and McCarthy won the $30,000 Woodward-Kirkover Chase at the 2012 Carolina Cup and then made it two in a row with a score in the $50,000 Queen’s Cup at Charlotte less than a month later.
McCarthy credits Kingsley, Baltic Shore and retired champion NSA jockey Jonathan Smart with helping his career take flight in this country.
“I struck up a good relationship with that horse and that led to getting more rides from Arch while getting noticed by more people,” he said of Baltic Shore. “The horse ran in Saratoga … he was my flagship from the beginning. He put me on the map. He was a very good horse.
“I’ve had a lot of help from good people over here.  I’ve had a lot of help from Arch Kingsley, who taught me a lot about race riding over here. I’ve also had a lot of help from guys like Jonathan Smart, as well. He watches videos and stuff with me and he’s helped me a lot, too.”
The one thing missing from Willie McCarthy’s resume is a Grade I win. He hopes to remedy that Saturday afternoon on Pierrot Lunaire, a horse which some people point to as one to watch in Camden. He is a fresher horse, with just one start this season, than some of the other jumpers who have been racing since the spring.
McCarthy said his mount is a horse which likes to lay back early in the race and then comes up big with a strong finishing kick. The long stretch run to the 2 ¾-mile Colonial Cup and its abundance of room to maneuver, McCarthy said, should suit Pierott Lunaire’s come-from-behind style. There is also more of a comfort factor this time around as McCarthy has a race on his mount under his belt.
Count McCarthy, who stays in shape by training for amateur boxing matches and who was an extra in Stephen Spielberg’s movie, “War Horse”, among those who believe Pierrot Lunaire has more than a puncher’s chance on Saturday.
“I think we’re going to be very competitive in this race,” he said. “I think that everything’s going to fall into place this weekend with the track and all that.
“He’s been training very well at home. I talked to Bruce on the phone and he’s schooled him this past week and he worked very well. We’re going in with all guns blazing on Saturday and, looking for a big race.”

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