By Daniel Ross
Trainer Mike McCarthy waits in the Santa Anita grandstand opposite the winning post, a pair of binoculars resting on his knees, for recent GI Malibu S. winner, City of Light (Quality Road) to work under Malibu-winning jock Drayden Van Dyke. While he’s waiting, McCarthy weighs up a question I’d just posed, about how he views the start he’s made to his training career, now turning into its fifth year. He carefully measures his words, calls himself “an optimistic realist,” then adds, with tongue firmly in cheek, “I’m an optimistic realist with a touch of pessimism.”
Minutes later, McCarthy would have every reason to be optimistic about the way his stable standard-bearer worked–a bullet five furlongs in :58:80, which keeps the 4-year-old son of Quality Road firmly on course towards a President’s Day appearance in the $500,000 GIII Razorback H. at Oaklawn Park Feb. 19.
And the colt’s sharp form is one of many reasons Todd Pletcher’s former assistant should be feeling rather more optimistic than pessimistic about, not only the past four years, but the next chapter of his career–something he’ll admit to later on that morning, in his office, horses trained and the mercury spidering upwards, when he says, “We’re pleased with what we’ve done, and we’re getting better.”
Then, like a nervous tick, the realist in him surfaces once again: “Certainly though, we’re always hungry to do better. We’re always striving for more.”
Mind you, that same hunger has been gnawing at him throughout his career. Not that the Ohio-born, California-raised McCarthy, 47, comes from a long racing lineage. His father is in the office furniture business. His poor mother, a homemaker, is “still recovering from raising my brother and I,” he says (tongue back in cheek). When he started out in California, he worked as assistant to the likes of Ben Cecil. Then came the 11-plus years as assistant to Pletcher, before, in 2014, McCarthy pitched his own coat of arms at Santa Anita, where he now runs a barn 30-horses strong.
By most benchmarks, the past four years have been on the whole something of a home-run. Each one has brought more winners and more money in the coffers. In 2014, he sent out six winners and bagged $213,810 in prize money. Last year, those totals had swollen to 27 winners and more than
$1.3 million in the kitty. What’s more, the quality of horse standing behind the white, grey and blue McCarthy webbings has steadily been on the improve.
Illuminant was McCarthy’s first top-flight winner since striking out on his own. Her 2016 win in the GI Gamely S. at Santa Anita was one of three stakes victories for the Quality Road mare, who sold for $1.1 million to Shadai Farm at last year’s Fasig-Tipton November Sale. If City of Light, who has yet to race farther than seven furlongs, sees out the 1 1/16 miles of the Razorback, he could spend the summer locking horns with the nation’s top milers in races like the GI Metropolitan H. and the GII Pat O’Brien H.
“He’s a big horse, physically imposing, and just needed time to come together,” says McCarthy, about his kid-gloves approach to the colt’s early career. “He was a little coarse as a yearling. Wonderful frame. Big hip. Nice shoulder. Plenty of leg. Two years later, he’s blossomed into something stunning. I would say he’s the best example of his sire from what I’ve seen.”
It’s not just City of Light that has McCarthy dreaming big. Paved, a 3-year-old filly by–guess who–Quality Road, broke her maiden last month, and McCarthy is eyeing races like the
GI Belmont Oaks and the GI Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup. First, however, Paved could take in the GIII El Camino Real Derby against the boys or an allowance back at Santa Anita.
“Both would serve as a nice prep for the [GIII] Providencia S.,” he says. “A filly like her certainly has you thinking about these sorts of races.”
Before responding to a question, McCarthy chews on it a few seconds then parses the words out deliberately. This habit, however, is understandable given how McCarthy spent more than a decade as assistant to a trainer whose usual offerings to the media have the carefully crafted veneer of a corporate press release.
“I think that what I’ve taken away is learning by example,” he says, of Pletcher. “How do you argue with a trainer who’s got like seven Eclipse Awards.”
Still, one assumes that when assistants fly solo, they’re eager to shake off the feathers of their former employer. Not McCarthy.
“I don’t need to shed that tag,” he says. “Some people are proud that they went to an Ivy League school. Some people are proud that they’re part of a certain organization. I’m very proud that I was able to be a part of something that, for me, set the foundation of what I’m doing today.”
McCarthy’s training regime, he says, is similar to that of Pletcher’s, at the heart of which are two essential qualities. One is good organization.
“I think that reflects on the horses,” he says. “They’re liking what they’re doing. They’re liking the routine.”
The other hues close to obsession.
“To me, the dedication that a Todd Pletcher brings to the game is unparalleled… and we like to spend a lot of time here,” he said. “We like the staff that we’ve built up around us. In turn, I like to think they like doing the job that they do”
When I suggest he has shown thus far a tad more patience with his youngsters than Pletcher (trainer of a couple Eclipse Award winning 2-year-old colts), he doesn’t argue, and offers an explanation.
“I just don’t have his numbers,” says McCarthy. “The horse population here in California isn’t quite as robust as it is in the Midwest and along the Eastern Seaboard…So, we’re probably a little slower to the party because of that–because there aren’t as many opportunities.”
There are elements of the whole training game that his apprenticeship didn’t quite prepare him for. One relates to what he coins an “instant gratification” culture, where the internet and social media can put trainers on the back-foot in the dissemination of news.
“There’s so much available information out there,” he says. “Your horse goes out and works 5/8ths of a mile, and through things like XBTV and social media, there are [owners] calling you before you get back to the barn.”
Another hard-earned element has been in fine-tuning those skills necessary if a trainer not only wants to maintain his client base, but wants to see it grow and expand–a difficult-to-balance alchemy of diplomacy and self-aggrandizement.
“I think for any trainer who’s going out on their own, who has spent any time in one operation, you become a creature of habit,” McCarthy said. “This [training] takes more cultivating of relationships, going out, going to sales, going to the races. It’s about managing expectations.”
Mind you, “I’m very grateful to the owners who have supported us,” he says.
And those owners who have supported him are grateful in return.
“I think he’s the complete package,” says Aron Wellman, over the telephone the following day. Wellman is president and founder of Eclipse Thoroughbreds, patrons of the stable since the beginning. The two men have known each other for years, even before McCarthy’s Pletcher tenure, and Wellman said that his old friend is “just starting to hit his stride” as a trainer.
“I think we’ve seen the scope of his capabilities in the sense colts, fillies, turf, dirt, short, long–he’s developing horses the right way,” Wellman says. “He’s exhibiting patience. He’s giving them opportunities to succeed. The attention to detail, the professional organization and manner in which the barn is run and the horses are cared for, it’s second to none.”
With a solid footing now beneath him, McCarthy’s keeping one eye on the kinds of races “that put you on the map.” The Triple Crowns. The Classics. The sorts of contests he routinely figured in when joint-second in command at Team Pletcher.
“For me, those are the races I want to be involved with,” he says. “To compete in a Grade I, it’s special in itself. But to win a Grade I, it’s vindication of what you’re showing up for every day. Knowing what you’re doing is right. Trusting your opinion.”
When you’re an optimistic realist, that’s the only sort of vindication that counts.