Steve Cauthen attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1963, the year Chateaugay defeated Candy Spots. He was taken to the Churchill Downs back-stretch by his mother and father, and through the long afternoon he romped on the grass and dug away at the family picnic hamper. Steve Cauthen remembers little about that day because, like the horses running in the Derby, he, too, had only recently become a 3-year-old. The young man has been back for several Derbies since then, most recently last spring when Bold Forbes outgamed Honest Pleasure through the stretch. He remembers the date of that Derby—May 1, 1976—more readily than the race itself, because on that day he became 16 years old and could start his career as an apprentice jockey.
"Jockey" may not be quite the right word to use for Steve Cauthen. There are some 3,000 officially certified "jockeys" scuffling, whipping and emitting banshee screams as they break out of starting gates from Vancouver's Exhibition Park to El Comandante in San Juan. In a little more than seven months of riding professionally Cauthen has become accepted as a "race-rider," a term granted by racetrackers to only the very best: Shoemaker, Cordero, Hawley, Pincay, Velasquez, Baeza. Since being put up on a 136-1 shot named King of Swat last May 12, Cauthen has won 240 races and purse money in excess of $1.2 million. His own take during his abbreviated first season is more than $150,000.
Cauthen is now in the third "kiss" stage of his stunning apprenticeship. Kisses in racetrack terminology denote the asterisks placed alongside a fledgling rider's name in the entries. When he starts out, an apprentice is given three asterisks, allowing him to ride 10 pounds lighter than a full-fledged jockey. After five winners, the first kiss goes and the youngster competes with a seven-pound allowance until he has won 35 races. After that, the apprentice rides with a five-pound allowance until one year has elapsed since his first winner. Cauthen thus has nearly five more months to ride as an apprentice. Former Jockey Sammy Renick, who has studied riders for nearly 50 years, says. "Getting Steve Cauthen to ride your horse with a five-pound allowance is like having a license to steal, and trainers know it. Cauthen looks like the best young rider to come onto the racetrack since Willie Shoemaker in 1949."
Cauthen is 5'1" and weighs 95 pounds. He began winning last spring at River Downs near Cincinnati and has moved onward and upward to Arlington Park and to Hawthorne near Chicago and, four weeks ago, to Aqueduct in New York, the track where jockeys are most critically judged.
Cauthen arrived in New York on the last day of November. After losing on his first four mounts, he took a 4-year-old named Illiterate out for the featured $25,000 eighth race. Illiterate was the lightweight at 110 pounds and had won but one claiming race since early April. Cauthen kept her close to the leaders and, with an eighth of a mile to go. rammed her through an opening to win by half a length. The tote board lit up at $61.20.
In his next 51 rides at Aqueduct, Cauthen had seven winners and was disqualified from another, a good but not extraordinary showing. There is an interesting thing about that disqualification, however. Cauthen's mount veered out in the stretch, but the rider was held blameless by the stewards. Being disqualified unsettles any rider and often causes inexperienced jockeys to become cautious. Not Cauthen. Two races after the disqualification, he drove a horse up along the rail to win.
In one 17-race stretch he bagged 12 winners. He was hot at all distances. He won the first stakes race of his career by taking the $55,050 Gallant Fox Handicap with a 19-1 shot named Frampton Delight. In just 21 days of riding at Aqueduct the 16-year-old apprentice won 29 races and $375,000 in purses. Projected over a full racing season, that would give Cauthen 425 winners and perhaps as much as $6 million in purses. No New York rider has won as many as 300 races in a year (though Velasquez just missed with 299 when Aqueduct closed last week), and no jockey has ever earned $5 million in purses.
Cauthen grew up in Walton, Ky., about 20 miles from Cincinnati and 60 miles from the bluegrass country of Lexington. His father, 44-year-old Ronald (Tex) Cauthen, is a blacksmith who works the Kentucky-Ohio circuit, and his mother Myra is a licensed owner/trainer. Two of his uncles are trainers.
At birth Cauthen weighed in at a normal enough 7 pounds, 12 ounces. But when he became five, his weight lingered at around 35 pounds. Young Steve was around horses on the family's 40-acre farm and his father would take him to work with him on the backstretches. "One summer he seemed to be with the starters in their stand at River Downs for almost every race." Tex Cauthen recalls. "He was beginning to learn things. At 12 he came to me and said, 'Dad, I think I want to be a jockey.' We sat down and I told him that if he was going to gain weight I didn't want him to even think about being a rider. I've seen too many jockeys practically commit suicide by starving themselves to death to make riding weight. That was the stipulation—no reducing.
"He wanted to ride everything that moved and even some things that didn't. When there wasn't a horse available he would sit on a bale of hay and use a stick as a whip. He chopped up many a $2.50 bale of hay that way. He kept getting better at using that stick, and the year before he went out to ride as an apprentice he could switch the whip so well that he could hit within an eighth of an inch of where he wanted to hit."
Tex Cauthen got some film of races at River Downs and Latonia, borrowed a projector, and he and his son would go up to Steve's room in the evening and watch the films, endlessly playing them backward and forward to see how moves were made, correctly or incorrectly. "There were maybe 80 or 90 races," says Tex, "and we just about wore the film out. We talked about things that people don't talk about too much anymore—wind resistance and balance. The rider we watched the most was Larry Snyder, because he has an excellent style. If you look at Steve now, you can see that he rides really low, which cuts down the wind resistance and makes him seem like one with his horse."
Cauthen rides so low and so close to his mounts that several opposing jocks have glanced over at his horses during races and thought he had fallen off. His back is always parallel to the ground and it looks as though a bowl of soup could be balanced there without ever losing a drop.
At River Downs' 56-day meeting last summer Cauthen had a record 94 winners. So one day he and his father flew to Saratoga to look things over for a possible invasion of the East. They checked out potential agents, then went back to River Downs to complete the meeting before moving on to Arlington Park. Cauthen won 40 races in 164 rides at Arlington to finish third in the standings. (The leading rider was Larry Snyder, the man Cauthen had looked at so many times on film, who won 54 races out of 271 mounts.) Moving south to Hawthorne. Cauthen finished second to Snyder, riding 27 winners to the veteran's 32.
When Hawthorne closed, Cauthen returned home and rode at Churchill Downs, where he had 24 winners in 120 mounts. One day Don Brumfield, perennially the top rider at Churchill, went to New York to win a stakes race, and when he came back he advised Cauthen to "take a shot" there.
On their visit to Saratoga, Cauthen and his father had talked to Lenny Goodman about the possibility of the agent's taking Cauthen's book. Goodman has handled the very best—Bobby Ussery. Johnny Rotz, Bill Hartack and, for the past dozen years. Hall of Famer Braulio Baeza—and had not taken on an apprentice in a quarter of a century. "I saw him ride in two races at Saratoga," Goodman says, "and he finished next to last in both on horses that didn't have a chance. But the talent was there. He wasn't afraid, he knew how to wait. He could switch the whip, he had balance. A feeling comes over you when you see one like him. So few have what he has." He took Cauthen on.
Last week Steve Cauthen was wearing a bathrobe in the jockeys' room at Aqueduct, nursing a severe cold he had caught while working horses early in the morning and then riding them in the afternoon in winds that gusted to 40 mph, dropping the wind-chill factor to minus 13°. "It's so cold riding in New York at this time of year that I have to wear gloves and earmuffs and sometimes wrap Saran Wrap around my feet to keep them warm," he was saying. "But I love to ride horses and I'm getting a chance. Sure, the days are long and I'm in bed by 9 o'clock. One of the things my father and I agreed on was that I had to finish high school, and I'm taking correspondence courses to finish up my senior year. I had mostly A's and B's back in school. I'm amazed by the attention I've gotten in New York. A lot of this is just being lucky. Television did a thing about me but I never saw it because I was asleep when the 11 o'clock news went on.
"I'm going to ride in New York all of next year if I'm good enough. But I'll be happy to get home for Christmas. I've been living in a hotel and I miss my family and my two brothers, who are 13 and seven. I'm looking forward to just being home."
On the first Saturday of this May, the chances are that Steve Cauthen, 17, will be at Churchill Downs once again. Riding in the feature.