The Kentucky Derby

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Tom McCarthy

Kentucky Derby Includes 75-Year-Old Trainer and Owner Tom McCarthy

May 02, 2009 09:30 AM
by Liz Colville
McCarthy has owned and trained horses for decades. At the age of 75, the Louisville native has a horse, General Quarters, in the race for the first time.

Lifelong Dream Comes Home to Race

Tom McCarthy’s nearly 50-year career as a racehorse trainer and owner has been in obscurity—until now. The Kentucky native’s horse, General Quarters, is running in this Saturday’s 135th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

McCarthy’s success has more than just training to thank: He’s not only General Quarters’ trainer, but his owner, “groom, hot-walker, stall mucker and masseuse,” according to The Courier-Journal.

A retired teacher and school principal, McCarthy would rise at 3 a.m. to train and care for his horses and then go to school at 7 a.m. The lifetime earnings from all of his horses totaled only $229,020 until early April, when General Quarters won Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes, earning McCarthy $460,000. Two months earlier, General Quarters pulled an upset at the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, winning in record time.
A second chance brought McCarthy and General Quarters together. McCarthy first saw the horse at the Keeneland Yearling Sale in September 2007. He was impressed by the horse’s breeding, particularly his sire, the fashionable stallion Sky Mesa, but decided not to bid on him. After his only horse was claimed (bought by another owner), McCarthy spent the winter without training thoroughbreds. He “mended fences” on his farm, slept in and “felt a little guilty about it,” he told The Courier-Journal.

But when General Quarters was entered in a $20,000 claiming race for his debut, McCarthy remembered the horse he had inspected at the auction several months earlier, and was impressed with how he had matured. He decided to enter a claim for the horse, along with two others. McCarthy won the draw in what he called the “first stroke of luck I've had in this business.”

General Quarters now has the most earnings of Sky Mesa’s offspring.

Background: McCarthy’s path to the Kentucky Derby

McCarthy has other twists of fate to thank for his success with General Quarters. His grandfather, a rider himself, allegedly traveled to America from Cork, Ireland, to deliver five horses to a man in New York. He planned to return to Ireland via Ellis Island, but found he had missed the boat after he made his delivery.

After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, McCarthy passed on veterinary school at Ohio State University—his planned career path before he was drafted—and instead chose to train thoroughbreds. In the offseason, he made money as a teacher, and took on full-time work as he and his wife grew their family. He also continued to pursue his passion in the wee hours of the morning.

McCarthy’s horses in the past have mostly been also-rans—horses that don’t win the money. Arguably, his independence has been his Achilles heel, due to the fact that he has had “no owner behind him,” The New York Times writes, and he has worked with “a limited personal income” until very recently.

Now General Quarters is his only horse, and McCarthy’s modest success—13 wins in 18 years—has suddenly been transformed. He’s been offered seven figures for General Quarters, he told The Courier-Journal, but for now, he’s not selling.

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Key Players: General Quarters

General Quarters is a 3-year-old colt bred in Kentucky by Mr. and Mrs. David Randal out of the mare Ecology and by the stallion Sky Mesa. General Quarters came into the spotlight on Feb. 14 when he won the 8 1/2-furlong Sam F. Davis Stakes in an upset. The horse had 14-1 odds going into the race, won in race record time, and was less than half a second behind Street Sense’s track record.

Reference: Kentucky Derby Web Guide; How to Pick the Derby Winner

Related Topic: Age No Obstacle in Pursuit of Lifelong Dreams

Tom McCarthy is just one persevering person who’s found success at a lifelong dream later in the game. In 2007, Nola Ochs, then 95 years old, became the world’s oldest college graduate. Last year, the 76-year-old Nepalese climber Min Bahadur Sherchan became the oldest person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest.

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