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General Quarters will be trainer Tom McCarthy's first horse in the Kentucky Derby. Not bad for a 75-year-old senior citizen, McCarthy is not so much interested in how old he is, but how good General Quarters is.
The second generation Irish-American almost missed out on his dream horse, passing on him at the 2007 Keeneland September Yearling Sale when he was valued at $20,000. When the horse became available in May 2008 for the same price, McCarthy snapped up the son of Sky Mesa, and the rest is history.
The horse has run 11 races, won three and earned $595,645. General Quarters’ big win came at the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 11, which catapulted the horse and McCarthy into the Derby and the limelight that accompanies it.
McCarthy, an army veteran, worked as a science teacher all his life, owning and training horses on the side. General Quarters will be ridden by French jockey Julien Leparoux on Saturday. The horse had a final run out last Thursday, going five furlongs in 1:01 4/5 on a fast track.
IrishCentral caught up with McCarthy on Derby week to ask him about his journey, and the following is an edited version of that conversation.
Can you tell me about your Irish Roots and your jockey grandfather?
My grandmother was from Waterford and my grandfather was from Cork. Her name was Connolly and my father's father came to this country when he was 18 in the 1870s. My great grandfather raced thoroughbreds and my grandfather rode over the jumps and on the flat.
My father told stories and, you know the Irish, but here is the story about my grandfather: He came to that States with some horses that were sold to people in New York. He came over in the boat, and I guess the horses were quarantined and he had to wait.
Somebody told him that he could not stay on the boat without getting some papers. He was only 18 years old and he didn’t know what they meant, so they took him over to I think Ellis Island and he went through Ellis Island.
By the time he got back, the boat was gone and he had the equivalent of a quarter in his pocket. He asked someone where the horses went, and he ended up walking to the racetrack at old Jamaica in Long island. He snuck in, met some Irish grooms and they hid him in the hay mount.
As my father says after a couple of days, I guess the regular exercise boys got paid on a Saturday, got drunk and didn’t come in on the Sunday morning and the trainer was upset. One of the Irish grooms said “we have a jockey upstairs,” so the trainer says “go get him we’ll see how good he is.” My grandfather went down, exercised the horses and the trainer said “you’re hired,” and that is how he got his start in the United States – galloping horses on the racetrack.
He would be proud of his grandson running a horse in the Derby. When you get a chance to reflect, how does that make you feel?
I tell you what. I used to take my father to Kenneland, he would come down with my mother and he loved Keeneland. He trained horses with his cousin in the 20s and 30s, he loved horses and he loved the racetrack.
He passed on quite a while ago but after the Blue Grass Stakes, and after we’d won it, I was out on the grass and I just wanted to take a minute and reflect on what happened. The first thing that came to my mind was, “I wonder if my father is watching,” and I got a lump in my throat because I know how much he would have loved it.
But its’ been quite a ride, I can tell you that, and this is a very nice colt that hasn’t gotten the attention he should have. Everybody is making something out of the fact that I am 75 years old, but I tell them “No, I am not 75, I am 45 in a 75-year-old body maybe, but I am only 45 on the inside!”
Tell us a little about working with General Quarters
He’s very intelligent. We’ve been together for a year and when he hears my voice he knows exactly what is going on. We go through the same thing every day and he knows the whole routine.
I love to work with him, groom him; I do everything with him that I can possibly do with him. He loves it and I love to do it with him.
How would you describe the horse’s temperament?
He has a beautiful temperament. I can do anything in the stall with him. When he comes out of the stall he becomes a different horse, he becomes aggressive walking, and aggressive on the racetrack too. Once he is in the stall he just calms down. We are kind of buddies you know.
It must be incredibly busy for you this week, how are you handling it?
I have a son who is an attorney and he’s been clearing his docket in the morning so he can help me, and my older son Tom has taken a week’s vacation and he comes in every morning to help. It’s the first time I have had any help. It’s been great, both my boys in there with me. Tom comes in every morning and Tim comes in and we have a great time the three of us.
Tom ran the horse at Keeneland and he has done some walking for me which has given me more time to do a few things around the stall. I used to have to get someone to hold him to even give him a bath when I was on my own (laughs). That’s how it has worked out and we are having a good time.
Will your family all be there to support you this weekend and how is your wife handling all this?
I’ve got three daughters and my two boys and they will all be there. Patricia (Tom’s wife) is enjoying it, and she lets me know that I am just a normal person!
With your trainer’s hat on, how would you rate General Quarters’ chances this weekend?
Well, a writer for the Courier Journal took all of the last 3/8 of the prep races and he (General Quarters) had the fastest 3/8 of all. Everybody is giving these big trainers and these other horses coming out of California a lot of talk and I am kind of on the downside of it as far as they are concerned. But let me tell you, this horse is bred as good any of them and he is training as good as any of them. The only trouble is that he has got a trainer who is 75 and it is his first Grade 1 stakes. Three or four of these guys are in the Hall of Fame, so their horses are getting a lot more attention. But General Quarters will run a good race - he will run a very good race.