Let's not put Steve Cauthen on a pedestal yet," Eddie Arcaro said. "The hazards of racing lie ahead. If you ride enough, you're going to have spills. They can be serious, and everyone reacts differently. Some jockeys can't take the physical shocks of injuries." Arcaro spoke after Cauthen, racing's wonder child, hit the dust during a mid-February race at Aqueduct. His mount had wheeled as it burst from the gate, and the apprentice bailed out, landing on his feet. Unhurt and unfazed, Cauthen rode three winners and went over the $1 million mark in purse money later that day. Last Friday, his winnings now $1.4 million, Cauthen once again fell between horses as they broke from the Aqueduct gate—and once again escaped without a bruise. Twenty-seven minutes later he was guiding his next winner under the finish line.
Steve Cauthen seems touched by both luck and genius, a storybook figure whose tale is wholesome, warm and uncomplicated. Television would hesitate to invent Cauthen, but it certainly cannot resist him. Neither can advertisers, who are dangling $1 million in contracts before him. Nor can book publishers, already bidding for the 16-year-old's life story.
There's this kid from a tiny town in Kentucky. His father is a blacksmith, his mother a trainer. Born during Kentucky Derby week, he dreamt of being a jockey and practiced his whipping techniques on bales of hay in the family barn. Finally, he got his chance and his first winner. His mother owned the horse and an uncle trained it. Naturally, the boy closed from last place to win and, sure enough, it was the feature race. And as screenwriters of the 1930s would have it, the horse was a gray.
Steve Cauthen seems to be from a different time, one when people delighted in reading about an immigrant's son named Stan Musial who came out of Donora, Pa. to win seven batting championships, or a lad of 18 called Rapid Robert Feller, who had pitched baseballs to his father behind a red barn in Van Meter, Iowa, and then walked off the farm into the starting rotation of the Cleveland Indians.
Thus far in 1977 the 5'1", 95-pound Cauthen, from Walton, Ky. (pop. 1,800), has ridden 132 winners in 51 days at the nation's two most important winter race meetings, Aqueduct and Santa Anita. If he keeps it up (which is unlikely, as he will lose the five-pound apprentice allowance on May 27), Cauthen would ride 900 winners this year—and the world record for a season is 546, set by Chris McCarron in 1974.
To Cauthen his 17 winners last week were nothing spectacular; in one seven-day period in early February he had 24. But his performance was still better than that of any other jockey in the country as he picked up more than $190,000 in purses, and won his first $75,000 stakes race. When he rode only one winner on Wednesday The New York Times ran a six-column head that read CAUTHEN IN DOLDRUMS? RIDES 'ONLY' ONE WINNER AFTER 7 STRAIGHT RACES WITHOUT A SCORE. The following day Cauthen bagged three winners. As he stood with his mother in the winner's circle a photographer hollered, "Kiss her. Again, again, again."
Earlier Cauthen had sat with Barbara Howar of Who's Who for a long interview at Barn 2 on the Belmont back-stretch and heard a man say, "Sound roll 9, camera 13, take I." Cauthen was cold and tired, and he put his hands inside his jacket. Occasionally he stood and stamped his feet. "Steve," asked Howar, "did you learn to cuss back home in Walton?" The boy's answer was disarming. "Please?" he said. As the interview wound down a TV man came over to Cauthen's agent, Lenny Goodman. "How long will this show run on the air?" asked Goodman. "Twelve, 13 minutes," said the man. "Millions of viewers. Twelve, 13 minutes may not seem like much, but do you know how long it is?"
"It's long," said Goodman, "if you got your neck at the end of a rope."
The agent leaned against a barn door. "I know this can't continue." he said. "Nobody rides this many winners. Steve's been going to the West Coast to ride on Sundays and it has to be hard on him. The reason we did it was to let people see him, see how good he is. Race-trackers have to see things for themselves. He wants to ride in the Derby but I'd only want him there if he thinks he has a chance to be one-two-three."
"It isn't one-two-three that matters," said Cauthen. "It's just to be there. It's the Ball. The Big Dance. The Senior Prom."
The Today Show wants Cauthen; so do Tonight and Tomorrow, and because he is so articulate, one can see why. He has already been on Good Morning America and the evening news with Barbara Walters, Chancellor-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. Johnny Carson told a Tonight Show audience, "I want to get Steve Cauthen on. We're trying. He's the only jockey in the world you can bet on to win, place or break out. If he keeps going from the finish line to the winner's circle as often as he does, the racetracks will have to hire crossing guards."
At the end of last week Robert Wussler, the president of CBS, said, "If somebody came into my office trying to sell me a series about a kid like Cauthen, I know what I'd do. Buy it! Particularly if it was produced by Norman Lear. Actually, I've followed Cauthen almost from the time he began riding. He's amazing. There's a lot of talk about him in New York and Los Angeles, and to a certain extent he faces one of the problems that thoroughbred racing itself faces in trying to gain exposure in the areas between those two cities. But I think he will overcome that swiftly."
While the Cauthen phenomenon is hardly two months old, his launching as a jockey was well planned, his training for success built stone by stone. "The reason people are interested in me," Cauthen says, "is not for what has been written or said about me; it's because I've been winning races." Does the media blitz bother him? "At times. Some of the people asking questions don't know much about racing, so I have to explain things to them. But they have their jobs to do and I have mine." Will he be any different from countless other apprentice jockeys who have flashed like heat lightning and ended up broke? "My father is a strong man. It would be very hard for somebody, even me, to get into his back pocket." Cauthen smiled. Although he looks like a kid in a Charles Dickens novel, one cannot imagine him ending up as Pip in Great Expectations.
Cauthen was not always as cherubic as he now appears. Trainer Ted Cleveland, the boy's uncle, remembers him as an 8-year-old: "He was the meanest and rottenest kid in Kentucky. Maybe even in the whole Southeastern United States. When you saw him coming you had two choices. You could bolt everything down or get the hell out of his way. But at nine he became polite and he's stayed that way."
The area around Walton has produced many jockeys through the years. Eddie Arcaro was born in nearby Cincinnati, and Jess Davidson not many miles down the Interstate in Manchester, Ky. Arcaro was a tough apprentice who admitted trying to kill another jockey during a race, but a year's suspension calmed him and he went on to become a hero in the sport. His "seat" is still regarded as the finest among jockeys. On the other hand, Davidson, who led the nation in winners in 1965, was convicted and sentenced last year to six months for conspiracy and fraud in connection with a race at Bowie in Maryland. Last week his appeal was denied by the Supreme Court and he will go to prison shortly.
Though Arcaro was the most famous rider of his generation, Ted Atkinson won the jockey championship of New York more often (11 times). Atkinson, 60, a literate and sensitive man, has retired to Beaverdam, Va. after serving as a steward in Illinois. "When Cauthen left River Downs where he set all those track records last year," says Atkinson, referring to the boy's 94 winners in 50 days, "he came to Arlington Park where I was working. What can I say about him except that he is sensational. And I use that word carefully.
"He had been riding for only a few months when his father came to me and asked if I would keep an eye on Steve to see if I could find flaws in his style. I looked for several days before I could find one. He had a tendency to think that he could open up at any time and steal a race. Most races are stolen in the first and last quarter miles rather than in between. I explained this to him and he took it with grace. People often say that one jockey outrides another down the stretch but I feel that is a lot of malarkey. The real work is done much earlier in the running by getting position and pacing your mount. Steve Cauthen knows how to do this. It is hard to compare the riding styles of different jockeys, but Steve Cauthen has the Arcaro seat. I should be an expert on that subject because I saw that seat from behind many, many times. A good rider needs instinct and perspective and Steve has those two things. He's the finished product now."
Like others, Atkinson marvels at the size of Cauthen's hands. Some racing people say that large hands and feet indicate a boy will start to grow quickly and gain weight. "I hope he doesn't," says Atkinson, "but those hands are huge for a jockey." Atkinson, Arcaro and Johnny Longden wore size 4½ shoes as apprentices, Shoemaker size 1½ Cauthen wears size 6. "If Steve encounters a weight problem he shouldn't fight it," Atkinson says. "Too many jockeys have killed themselves doing that. But he and his father already have an agreement that there will be no harsh dieting. The father has a tremendous influence on the boy."
Though horseplayers may be pardoned if they suspect that Cauthen was born in a manger on Christmas Eve, he was no unusual babe. He weighed a normal seven pounds, 12 ounces. But his growth was subnormal; his 14-year-old brother Doug is already 10 pounds heavier. When Steve expressed a desire to become a jockey, Tex Cauthen suggested his son lift weights to increase his strength. The boy also does yoga exercises every morning. "The routine is similar to a ballet dancer's," says Tex. "He keeps his legs and arms limber and supple so that he can stretch back and hit a horse freely."
Tex took his son to several doctors when he was 13 to get a reading on potential weight problems. "I was concerned that after all the training he might grow six or seven inches and that would knock him out of business," Tex Cauthen says. "It would be a terrible shock to a young man's system, a very harsh thing to swallow after he had set his heart on becoming a jockey. But there was no way anyone could tell whether or how he would grow."
Steve appears unconcerned about his weight. He took his mother to Sardi's in mid-Manhattan last Tuesday and dined on crab meat in cream, asparagus tips and Coca-Cola. He will be one of the few athletes to have his caricature put on the restaurant's walls. The next night Cauthen passed up a special dinner at another famous New York restaurant. Tavern On The Green, where the salmon mousse was decorated with a miniature horse, and there was a saddle of lamb set on bread to make it look like a real saddle, with stirrups cut from eggplant. He said he was tired.
Within the next few weeks, the legend of Steve Cauthen should continue to grow. On Saturday, March 5 he will ride in the $150,000 California Derby at Golden Gate near San Francisco, then have a mount in the $250,000 Santa Anita Handicap the following day. That Monday he returns to New York to ride, after which he flies South to help open Hialeah on Tuesday. In the next week he will probably find time to sign with Irving (Swifty) Lazar, the literary and show business agent who has handled Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner, George S. Kaufman and Richard Nixon.
Lazar, who at 5'3" is jockey-sized and owns horses, met Cauthen at Santa Anita. "He's one of a kind," says Lazar. "When will we see another like him? He's going to tell his life story at 16. Maybe four hours of a TV special. The endorsement offers pour in daily. They're in the millions. He's got dignity, poise, perception. Ninety-five pounds on a horse. On the rail, through horses. Fearless. Good-looking. There is a dignity about champions. The chumps don't have it. The second bananas don't have it. Only the first bananas have it."
One day late last week a radio was blaring in the jockeys' room at Aqueduct as Cauthen, surrounded by reporters and cameramen, prepared to ride. He was impervious to the song being played—This Could Be the Start Of Something, written by Steve Allen.
You're lunching at Twenty One and watching your diet/Declining a Charlotte Russe, accepting a fig....
You're up in an aeroplane or dining at Sardi's/Or lying at Malibu alone on the sand/ You suddenly hear a bell, and right away you can tell that This could be the start of something big!...
There's no controlling the unrolling of your fate, my friend,/Who knows what's written in the magic book?...
¬© MCMLVI by Rosemeadow Publishing Corporation, 322 West 48th Street, New York, N.Y.
Cauthen excused himself. "I've got to go to work." he said.