Charlie McCaul © Benoit Photo
By Mac McBride
The name – thick Irish that it is – is Charles Gerard McCaul. But if you’re like everyone else at a racetrack in Southern California, you simply know him as “Charlie.”
For the past 29 years, Charlie has run the jockeys rooms at Del Mar, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Pomona and Los Alamitos as the Clerk of Scales, a job insiders know well but the general public hardly recognizes.
The Clerk of Scales is the guy who “runs the room,” making sure all is right in one of the most unique arrangements in all of sports. Racing is the only sport where competitors don’t have different locker rooms/dugouts/dressing rooms for the times in between the frays. In the world of Thoroughbreds, they all gather in one large room with all the energy and combustibleness that phenomenally fit and ferociously competitive athletes can bring to the party. At one moment two riders are side-by-side on the racetrack, shouting, sweating, whipping and giving their all to beat the guy next to him. In the next moment they are side-by-side again, sitting next to each other at their lockers.
Running that show and keeping things on the level is no mean feat. It takes someone special to set the right tone, gain full respect and make sure things flow smoothly day in and day out.
That’s our guy Charlie.
He didn’t come to the job by way of a hand out. He paid his dues and worked his way into it after years and years of learning the racetrack from the ground up.
His tale is a classic, worth a telling.
His folks were from the “old country,” Letterkenny, Ireland, in fact, in the northern part of the country in County Donegal. Irish Catholic through and through with a priest and a nun as part of the clan, and a family pub named, of course, “McCaul’s.”
His dad, also Charles (Charles Lewis McCaul), came to America to go to school and graduated with a degree in accounting from New York’s Columbia University. He sent for his true love – Anne, known as “Ita” – and next thing you knew their apartment in the Bronx became much too small when the fifth child came around. So they were off to a home in Valley Stream, Long Island (not far from Belmont Park, as it so happened) where the kids got to growing with one of them – young Charlie – finding a couple of loves that he still holds today, the New York Yankees and horse racing.
With their parents’ encouragement, the McCaul clan all headed to college and “proper” careers. All, that is, but young Charlie.
“I had seen Secretariat run,” he recalled, “and that hooked me right there. I was in love with horses and horse racing. My older brother, Patrick, had landed a job walking ‘hots’ at the track and, after I graduated from high school, I got in, too. Right from the start I liked it.
“I started out walking hots for Reggie Cornell when he had the Calumet Farm horses, the devil’s red and blue. Worked my way up to a groom. Stayed with him for a couple of years but he lost the horses when they brought in John Veitch. Worked for King Ranch, then got back with Reggie when he now had Aaron Jones as his main client, so we were heading to California for the winters – first time for the ’76 Oak Tree meet – then back to New York for the summers. I also worked for Elliott Burch when he had Alfred Vanderbilt and the C.V. Whitney as his clients. Nice horses for sure.
“So in 1981 I came back to New York one last time and decided California was where I wanted to be. Packed my car full of my things and drove west. First signed on with Jude Feld, then went to work with (the late trainer) Eddie Gregson. He was grooming me to be an assistant and then a trainer, but I told him I didn’t like the thought of that – too tough, too cutthroat a world. So he said let me go to (Santa Anita’s Director of Racing) Mr. (Jimmy) Kilroe and see what I can do. Mr. Kilroe gave some encouragement to Tom Robbins in the racing office to hire this young McCaul guy and I was off and running.”
Over the next several years Charlie became a stewards’ aide, a patrol judge, a placing judge and then an assistant clerk of scales. (During that span he got the official seal of approval as a member of the west coast horse family when Bill Shoemaker, the notorious practical joker of the jockeys’ room, put shaving cream in his hat, then watched it run down the side of his face when he put it on. “You’re OK kid,” Shoe said with that grin of his. Charlie felt like he’d passed the test.)
Charlie "weighs in" jockey Flavien Prat © Benoit Photo
He especially liked working in “the room.” Eventually when the long-time clerk of scales Dean Scarborough – a former professional baseball player and one of the classiest men you’d ever want to meet – retired in 1992, he recommended Charlie to take over. Ever since – at all Southern California tracks – he’s been “the man.” He’s been the guy that -- among other things -- weighs them “out” (at the scale inside the jockeys’ room prior to them heading out to ride), then weighs them “in” (after they’ve ridden at the scale alongside the winner’s circle).
There were some years when he hardly got to draw a deep breath in his new role. He’d work Del Mar, then Pomona, then Hollywood Park, then Santa Anita, then Hollywood Park again then Del Mar. (“It was tough,” he recalled. “Almost no time for yourself; no breaks. Six days a week at Del Mar, then 30 straight days at Pomona. Oh, man. I’m glad I was younger and stronger.”)
A couple of the veteran riders in the current Del Mar room – both of whom have known and worked with Charlie for more than 30 years – were asked their opinions on him.
“He’s fair, very fair,” said Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux. “He lets us know exactly what he expects of his riders. He let’s us know we’re representing him, not the other way around. That the best thing a Clerk of Scales can do.”
Another Hall of Famer, Mike Smith, had high praise for Charlie, too. “He’s an upstanding official and he’s a man of faith, which really registers with me,” Smith said. “We talk sports, too. He’ll tell you all about those quarterbacks and how they take the snap and drop back. He’ll let you know about the ones that can really do it. And what’s especially good about him is that he stays level; he’s always the same. That makes him easy to work with.”
Charlie has held on to the things of his youth. He still goes to Mass every Sunday. (“They know I’m going to be a little late in the racing office on Sunday, but they understand.”) He still loves his Yankees. (“When I was a kid my Dad took me out to the monuments in centerfield at Yankee Stadium. I saw all the Yankee greats there – Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle – and I had this fantasy that I’d work for them some day and meet all the Yankee heroes. But instead I went to the racetrack and met heroes just as big – Pincay, Shoemaker, McCarron, Delahoussaye, Toro, P. Val, Stevens, Hawley and on and on. It came true for me.”) And he’s glad that he found a place that makes a hard-working man happy. His current job additionally calls for a full morning of him taking entries from trainers and jockey agents in the backside racing office; drawing the actual races; then collecting and disseminate the scratches on race day. Finally, he spends the rest of the day in “the room.” His many roles at the racetrack have earned him a nickname that fits so well: “DoItAll McCaul.”
On reflection, he’s found solace in a part of his life that once troubled him.
“My Dad died too early; he had a heart attack when he was only 53,” Charlie said. “And for a long time, I felt like maybe I let him down. My brothers and sisters went to school and found good careers. And all I did was go to the racetrack. But of late I’m thinking differently. I’ve got a good occupation with good people doing something I love. If my Dad was here now, I believe he’d agree.”
2021 marks year 47 of Charlie at the racetrack. Today, in particular, also marks something special: his 65th birthday. So if you see him somewhere around the racetrack today, doing one of the many things he does, wish him a happy birthday. Then watch the big smile of a happy, hard-working man spread across his face.