Racing Post Features – 7th January 2012
When he flew into Britain that April Steve Cauthen was to make a greater impact and leave a finer legacy than any jockey anytime. Sounds like a big boast but come with me back to the spring of 1979.
Steve came from Walton, Kentucky not Rome, Italy but like Julius Caesar this was to be a case of “Veni, Vidi, Vici.”
He was still 18 when he arrived but in the previous two years he had already conquered heights no jockey has ever reached before or since. 1977 was his first full season. Weighing under 7 stone and standing only just over 5 foot he outrode all America to land 487 victories and become the first jockey to win $6million in a calendar year. He was called “The Kid.” The nation went wild. He was on every TV show from “Good Morning America” to “Johnny Carson”. He was twice on the cover of Newsweek, and three times on Sports Illustrated who named him Sportsman of The Year, the only racing person to be so honoured. There was even a record: “And Steve Cauthen Sings Too!” Actually, he couldn’t.
Even over in insular England – no Sky Sports, no TV rolling newschannels then – we registered that there was a new comet crossing the States. But not one in a million could guess that not only were there even more sensational feats ahead but that he would be on our shores within little more than a twelve month. In 1978, at only just past his 18th birthday, he became the youngest and last jockey to land the American Triple Crown in three pulsating duels with his titanic rival Alydar culminating in the greatest “stretch duel” in history when Steve finally inched Affirmed ahead to land The Belmont.
What Steve Cauthen had done was beyond imaginings but now he was here. To be exact he was in the rain soaked paddock at Salisbury on April 7th 1979 with all eyes and the World of Sport (no Channel 4 Racing until 1984) cameras upon him. He was a serious, bird-beaked man-child in long waterproof breeches. He could cope with bad weather but unfortunately Salisbury could not. In a scene guaranteed to reaffirm every foreign stereotype of the bungling English, I was left to fill for long empty minutes on the World of Sport microphone while we showed pictures of the Salisbury stewards’ car stuck in the mud.
Steve was never going to be stuck. He had come over to ride for Robert Sangster and Barry Hills and it was for Barry that he brought a horse called Marquee Universal calmly through to make our first view of him a winning one. It was a good start, so too the unflurried and courteous way the young tyro handled the fevered press conference. But in every sense we had seen nothing yet. Exactly 4 weeks later on 5th May 1979, just 4 days after his 19th birthday, Steve Cauthen stepped into the British Classic arena and promptly won the Two Thousand Guineas on Tap On Wood.
By any standards it was a stunning performance. The unbeaten Henry Cecil trained Kris was a red hot favourite but there was a cool authority about Cauthen’s long low back in the green and black stripes as he got first run and held on by half a length. We media folk were almost tongue tied with amazement. Steve Cauthen wasn’t. For two years he had been asked every question on the planet by every microphone that could get near him. Talking to stuttering English questioners was like having tea with your granny. He had clear blue eyes and a deep Kentucky voice. We were in love.
The relationship never died but to his and everyone’s benefit it did at least cool a little from that tumultuous start. Under the wing of Barry and Penny Hills at Lambourn he was able to both learn his craft and find his real self. After the first media flurry he was left alone and would be unrecognized off the racetrack. It was a heaven compared to the gold fish bowl he had come from where those who had hailed him as the new Messiah then revelled in rubbing him after he went to California and got struck by what became a soul destroying 117 ride losing streak. He bought smart tweeds, went on royal shooting parties, dated county girls – and grew.
By 21 the tiny 16 year old had morphed into a five foot six athlete with the big hands of his father Tex Cauthen, the racetrack farrier. The battle with weight had begun. For the first few years he adopted something of a “champagne and flip” approach which made him good company but would have hostesses complaining that a thief had raided the fridge at night. Steve was using the American “heaver” system where he would gorge himself with goodies only to “heave” or “flip” before it could settle on the stomach. People tut-tutted but Steve was so charming that you could not complain and anyway he was a star on the track.
Not the complete package yet, and indeed he didn’t ride another Group One winner in Britain until 1983. But by then the class that was always there had adapted to the varied courses and cambers of the British scene which present so many more challenges than the regulation flat left handed ovals on which the young Cauthen had learnt his craft. By the time Steve won a gale-buffeted Champion Stakes in October 1983 by sheltering last on the inside and then slicing past Frankie Dettori’s father and Tolomeo just before the post I could be writing in the Sunday Times : “To get through at all needed something like a miracle. To manage it and put the filly’s head in front right on the line was as near a masterpiece as is possible in raceriding.”
He was Champion Jockey next year and by mid-summer had already signed, much to Barry Hills’ understandable discomfort, to ride for Henry Cecil the following season. “I think it’s bad,” grumbled Barry. “I will never make a young jockey again if this is what happens.” The initial frisson didn’t stop Barry supporting Steve right through to taking that first title and remaining such a lifelong friend that Cauthen’s televised tribute to Barry was one of the most touching moments when the retiring trainer was feted at last year’s Cartier dinner. “Barry you were a wonderful friend and teacher to me,” said Steve letting the years roll back with that Kentucky voice with its English inflections. “You were a hard task master, but that was good. You were also a smashing guy and you and Penny were like parents to me.”
Lambourn had been a great beginning but Newmarket, the actual well spring of horseracing, was always going to be the grandest stage, and harnessed to the Cecil operation at the very zenith of its fortunes, Steve Cauthen was going to be at the centre of it. “He was the best stable jockey we ever had,” remembers head lad Paddy Rudkin. “The moment he arrived he just wanted to muck in. He wanted to know all the horses and would be the same with everyone. And we sure had some good horses that year.”
They did. 1985 was an Annus Mirabilis not just for Cauthen and Cecil but for racing too. They were both champions in their categories and for the next seven seasons they became the most charismatic trainer/jockey double act that the game has ever, probably will ever, see. Brilliant horse after brilliant horse would come back into the winners enclosure where the foppish, self deprecating Cecil would answer queries with a toss of the head and a question of his own. Afterwards the rider would return from the weighing room and take actual pleasure in sharing his unique insights with the wider world. Seven years earlier Affirmed’s trainer Laz Barrera had said that Steve “must have come from Mars on a flying sausage.” For us any star would do.
That first year was the season of Slip Anchor’s Derby and most of all it was the summer of Oh So Sharp’s Triple Crown and that first leg, the three-way photo between her, Bella Colora and Al Bahathri will remain forever etched in the memory. A furlong out Oh So Sharp, inconvenienced by the firm ground, looks the least likely of winners. But Steve gathered her with that rhythmic unflustered compulsion and pumped her up to land it right on the line. It was in every sense a classic ride and it is because so many were to come in those so few following years that one can make the claim that Steve Cauthen made the greatest impact of them all.
Of course Todd Sloan with 254 winners from 801 rides in the three brief years before he was banished at the end of 1900 had a more obvious effect. But for all his dodgy “Yankee Doodle Dandy” genius, Tod’s achievement relied centrally on showing the “flat earthers” of the old fashioned “sit on your bottom and spur and hit” brigade that the American forward seat was a completely superior system. What Cauthen did was something wider. He restored rhythmic orthodoxy as the race riding beau ideal and then added transatlantic balance and timing of his own.
For the last twenty years the British jockeys’ roster had been dominated by the unorthodox geniuses of Lester Piggott and Pat Eddery. Both had unique gifts of poise and determination and equine understanding. But both only led their imitators up roads they could not follow. With Cauthen even an outsider could see the sweetness of the movement, the lightness of the touch and the almost slow flow of that elbow-lifting rhythm which is the mark of class in any sport. Young jockeys would feast their eyes on it. Frankie Dettori was one of the first and most devoted of disciples.
Steve may not have revolutionized the style in the way Tod Sloan did. But it was he who brought the tighter, toe-in-the-iron balance which is now the default position and it was he, with his years of clocking on American tracks, who showed, most famously with Slip Anchor and Reference Point, that a front running role can be no hindrance if you know how fast you are going.
Yet the greatest legacy was one of style both in and out of the saddle. Steve was about sympathy, about doing things with class and whilst Piggott and Eddery had always struggled with interviews to the extent that Lester’s Brandoesque monosyllables became a national cult, Cauthen showed that friendly openness improved not only the rider but the sport’s popularity. “If I can set a good example then I’ll feel that I have achieved something,” he said. The rewards in the game are not just financial. Possession may be nine tenths of the law but possessions are not nine tenths of life. The most important thing any man can own is his own soul.”
He was not to be with us long. Despite kicking the champagne in 1986 and winning a titanic 197-195 last day duel with Pat Eddery for the 1987 title, the weight was taking a savage toll not helped by a neck breaking fall at Goodwood in August 1988. After a year as Sheikh Mohammed’s No1 in 1992, Steve and his wife Amy repaired back home to Kentucky to build a dream home on the land he had bought from Affirmed’s Triple Crown and then to raise what was to become a splendid three daughter family in the clear belief that they should come first.
Every sport has its Everest mountain peaks. It takes a very special mind and body to conquer them. But it also takes an even more special one to keep ambition in its place. Driving away from staying with Steve Cauthen in November I felt as I and millions of television viewers used to after he had come to talk to us on the box. Better for it.