The high school inWalton, Ky.—of red brick, fringed by a garden of daffodil buses—lies in the leeof the interstate that winds out of the Bluegrass, roaring north toward theOhio and the city of Cincinnati, 20 miles away. The school is the largestbuilding in Walton, for it must be big enough to hold all the children of thetown, and all those of the neighboring hamlet of Verona, and all the highschool myths and memories of anybody who visits.
High schools areour commonest common denominator. Good Lord, they all even smell the same, thatstale institutional odor that can be disturbed only by another ringing bell.End of the period. The children fall out into the corridors, moving with aspecial rhythm, at a pace they will never again employ in life. Nothing else inthe human experience resembles the break between classes.
In a room justbeyond the clamor, the assistant principal, Mr. Tyler, muses: "Let's seenow, Steve would be a junior if he were still here, wouldn't he?"
"A senior, Ithink."
December 19, 1977
"Oh, yeah,that's right. He used to go around with Gordon and Stephenson, that crowd."There was nothing special about the boy: a nice little fellow, good family: anindustrious enough student, but capable of the usual adolescent hijinks. Heliked to trampoline, and some people knew he rode horses at 4-H.
There is peace inthe halls again, between-classes concluded, and soon only an outsider's heelsclick upon the linoleum. Almost as one, the students of Walton Verona HighSchool stare curiously out their open classroom doors. Who dares violate thesehalls before the bell? And only now, looking back at these children—in thiseveryday setting, observing their normal, everyday routine—only at this momentdoes the full incongruity and enormity of what Steve Cauthen has done loomclearly.
It is not enoughto marvel that at the age of 17 he has accomplished more in a year than anyjockey in history. It is not enough that already there exists the mad school ofthought that this little boy is the finest rider of all time. These areincredible things to ponder about someone so young, but somehow, as young as heis—and younger-looking still—the immensity of his achievement in 1977 cannot beproperly understood until you stand in his high school and see the open countryfaces of the other children of Walton and realize that Steve Cauthen should bethere among them still. He should be a senior in high school this day, hearingthe bells and whiffing the smell.
And he wouldbe...but for the coincidence of his size and his family background, but for thedepth of his desire and some amazing gift of God that no one cancomprehend.
Instead, almost atthis very moment, several hundred miles away, when a bell rings, Steve Cauthenwill burst from the starting gate at Aqueduct, bound to his horse in consummateharmony, seamless, one with the creature—a prodigy like none we have ever seenbefore, the leading money rider of any year, a fearless athlete, a resolutelittle doll-person, Sportsman of the Year, so very tiny, so very young, so veryextraordinary and ageless in his grace at this one thing he does that he alwayscalls "race riding."
His home iscrosstown from the school, a horse farm of 40 acres, hard by a train track andthe county line. His room has been left untouched, so that there is thesensation of boarding one of those ships in the Bermuda Triangle, whereeverything is in perfect order, but there are no people. Steve'stextbooks—Modern Biology being the most imposing volume—and the ribbons he wonat horse shows stand out as artifacts from that distant era.
In New York, heboards with old family friends, but Cauthen's real habitat is the jocks' roomat Aqueduct (or Belmont or Santa Anita in season) where he has the honor of anend locker, catty-cornered from Jorge Velasquez who, coincidentally, held theold New York riding record of 299 wins in a year. Cauthen will top that byalmost 150, which, if you will, is comparable to a rookie hitting 90 home runsin the big leagues. His mounts have won more than $6 million, exceeding AngelCordero's record of $4,709,500 by a full 27%. Three times this year the kidrode six winners on a nine-race program; four times he rode five; one week herode 23. His best mounts, the 2-year-old Affirmed and the grass-running JohnnyD., won Eclipse Awards—top U.S. honors—in their categories, because Cauthengave them perfect rides in a couple of their major races. Withal, he missed awhole month of work after a gruesome spill in which his mount broke a leg, andhe broke a wrist and two fingers, cracked some ribs, took 25 stitches and aconcussion. He came back, galloped horses two days, and won his first race outon a colt named (no doubt by angels in heaven) Little Miracle.
In the process,Cauthen also became a phenomenon, which is really neither here nor there, butwhich does help us understand better the person and the exalted place hesuddenly assumed in his sport's orbit. So much of Cauthen's saga is tied to thepeculiar institution that is pari-mutuel horse racing, which has always been ahybrid entertainment and which recently has become a distressed industry aswell. For a time the kid blew a breath of joy and humanity into a callous andcynical wheel. That moment is gone—the business of thoroughbred racing isbusiness—but in the nuclear glare in which young Cauthen was scrutinized, wecould discern the man's elegance behind the boy's downy countenance.
But make nomistake: while all of racing is a bet, each race is a sport. What Cauthen doesis as athletic as what Lydell Mitchell and Pete Maravich and Guy Lafleur dowith their bodies. In a way it is even more so, for their bodies are their own,not, perforce, attached to some 1,000-pound beast, charging 35 miles an hour,with brains as fragile as its sesamoids. "The horse is such a beautifulanimal," Cauthen says. "When you're on him, in control of him, movingwith him as one, it is a beautiful feeling." And then, in some reverie:"The best is when you're almost getting him to know what you want todo."
Almost. The verybest is only almost. And sometimes you are all out, in close, side by side withjockeys who are as dim-witted or panicky as their mounts. Or, you are deadclear, unbothered—like in the fourth at Belmont on May 23, on Bay Streak."What happened?" a microphoneperson demanded a few days later, as thechild in the wheelchair came out of the hospital with his mother. "Horsesnapped a leg," said Steve Cauthen into the metallic thing thrust into hisbruised little face.
And Velasquez'mount, onrushing, had stumbled over him. Horse snapped a leg. Horse will snap aleg in some other race, too. "I haven't got any fears," the kid saysnow, summing up this old inconvenience.
Racing has fewheroes. The Secretariats are shuffled off to the equine massage parlors as soonas they attract some fond attention to the sport. Jockeys are too small toidentify with, and the general public perceives them as crooked littleMunchkins at that. Besides, most of the good ones these days areforeigners—"the Spanish boys," as they are dismissed cavalierly.
Unlike otherwell-known athletes, jockeys appear from thin air. This makes them even moresuspect. Who are these elves? Had Steve Cauthen been comparably talented in anyother sport, he would have been a community celebrity at 13, a high schooldemigod, his value certified by the presence of scores of college andprofessional scouts. Everybody in Boone County knew about Lenny Spicer, whograduated from Walton Verona High in 1975 and signed with the PittsburghPirates.
But few in BooneCounty were aware that Steve Cauthen was even contemplating a career. And youcan't ride a race until you ride a race. There is no spring training. "Iwas ready to die after I rode my first race," he says. "There's no wayto get fit galloping. People have no idea."
People had no ideathat, for years, the little boy had sat up nights with his father, a racetrackblacksmith, studying patrol films from River Downs. No one knew that he hadworked summers at the track, mucking stalls, walking hots, staying around thestarting gate; listening, learning, ingesting every nuance of race riding. Whohad any idea? His friend Todd Stephenson stayed over at the Cauthens one night,and so he found out that Steve would get up at 4 a.m. and, in the pitch dark,dress and go out to the barn and sit on a bale of hay, and for two hours, inthe still predawn silence that might be disturbed only by a train whistle, hewould practice whipping. Alone, in the red barn, he learned to switch the stickfrom one hand to the other, to tag the horse precisely upon his tailbone. Helearned.
His father gavehim the anvil, but it was Steve Cauthen, the child, who heated the metal andbanged himself into the shape that stunned experts when they first saw himride. "A lot of jockeys start training a few months before they startriding," Cauthen says. "I grew up to be a horseman, not just ajockey."
Because he wassuch a mysterious new presence and such an appealing figure (and because he wasnative-born), he captured the imagination of the country. Johnny Carson toldSteve Cauthen jokes, gen-u-wine media celebs like Barbara Howar chased himcross-country for an interview; and such was the everyday journalistic crunchthat once, by the scales, two TV crews fought a pitched battle over cameralocations. "I'd come into the jocks' room in the morning, and there'd befive guys waiting," the kid recalls. "And they'd be screaming: 'I wasfirst,' 'I'm next,' begging me to talk to them. It was ridiculous."
But if Cauthen wasa comet in the insatiable Famous People Industry—in the 1977 parade, videotapehighlights will show him marching somewhere between Anita Bryant and R2-D2—hethrew a monkey wrench into the machinery of racing wherever he rode. Until June28 he kept a five-pound apprentice allowance—hey, gang, let's give Rod Carewfour strikes!—that utterly destroyed the equipoise of the ancient system.Worse, there was no price to be had on his races.
Strangely,Cauthen's success proved how far horse racing is out of the mainstream ofAmerican life. He didn't sell. To be sure, for a substantial fee, he rode SteveCauthen Days at various outback ovals—Penn National, Latonia, Hazel Park,etc.—and invariably he pulled warm, record-type crowds, but this was largely anintramural matter of churning up a devoted existing constituency. Horse racinghas no rub-off. While Cauthen is the Bruce Jenner of 1977, the Simpson orSeaver of his sport, while he grossed 600 or 700 grand, he made little beyondthe fringe; not a single endorsement.
Thus, in aperverse way, while Cauthen is the biggest star in the most crass sport of all,he has quietly returned to his roots, as pure a major athletic commodity asthere is to be found. Often nowadays he rises at dawn and goes to the trackjust to drink coffee and hang around. "Saturday was always my favorite daywhen I was growing up, because then I could be around racetrack people," hesays. "Nobody makes me come out mornings now. I just like the atmosphere. Ilike the people at a racetrack—that's my people."
His is a scrawnylittle voice, rather what you might expect, given his size. But it is of honesttimbre, almost devoid of backwoods inflection, and those grown-ups who havespoken to Cauthen intelligently about things within his ken have found himarticulate, even garrulous.
"I'm not aheadline freak," he says. "I never wanted the publicity. All I wantedwas to be appreciated by the people around me, racetrack people. But Iunderstand the publicity stuff. In New York, everything's got to do withbusiness. Somebody comes to you because they need you. They don't necessarilyhave bad intentions. They just need you at that time. I don't mind. Now lastspring, I was a tired kid. But it's O.K. now. I always wanted just the onething, to be a race rider, and this is the place to be one."
Professionally,Cauthen is bred as well as any foal ever dropped in the Bluegrass. On the homeside is the father, the blacksmith, Ronald (Tex) Cauthen. On the shop side ishis agent, Lenny Goodman. One was raised in Sweetwater, Texas; the other comeoutta your Brooklyn. Between the two, between Sweetwater and Brooklyn, there isno virtue or value in race riding that has not been imparted to the child.
Tex Cauthen is thesalt of the earth. He grew late, to 5'9", and so no matter what the doctorssay, he is not altogether convinced that his oldest son won't shoot up a fewmore inches from his present 5'1". If so, if so. Even now, the father'sprimary emotion about his son is being happy for him. The rest he takes instride. "I just feel that Steve's doing what he's supposed to bedoing," he says.
His wife Myra hastrained horses, as have a brother and a brother-in-law. And her father ownedhorses. It's in the family. She met Tex at the track. They are nice-lookingpeople, but they don't look a thing alike. He is dark and rounded, and she islight and angular. And Steve doesn't look at all like either of them.Apparently, he got the least of their height and the best of the rest ofthem.
The Cauthensbought the farm in Walton in 1965, when Steve was five, and they keepbroodmares there. At tracks like Latonia, a few miles up the road, or at RiverDowns, Tex Cauthen earns $27 for shoeing a horse. It is one of the most honestprofessions. There are no shortcuts. All about the Cauthen living room arepictures of horses winning races for members of the family—trainer or rider—butthe one large painting over the fireplace is of a smith shoeing a bay. Thishelps to keep things in perspective. The Cauthens remain very much inperspective. The neighbors, ever-vigilant watchdogs in strike-it-rich casessuch as this, detect no new airs. The Walton Advertiser wrote a nice story onthe local boy when he passed Cordero's earnings record, but, in keeping withpriorities, the lead story that edition featured John Williams of Bracht PinerRoad, who was cited for raising a 17¾-pound muskmelon.
The Cauthens didsplurge and buy a phone recording machine, but this marked change in life-stylemainly assists strangers who mispronounce the family name. Most say the firstsyllable as in coffin or cough, while correctly it is as in cotton, with an h:Cothin.
The family is fromEngland, possibly Cornwall, and moved west to Sweetwater via the Carolinas.Myra Cauthen is a Bischoff, from the Bluegrass. She grew up on a horse farm notfour miles from where she is raising her family. Besides Steve, there are Doug,14, and Kerry, eight. The house is comfortable, and the home is filled withample amounts of affection and respect.
"I goteverything from my mother and father," Steve says. "They're lovingparents. And the main thing is, they gave me the love I needed when I neededit. And that's why I'm where I'm at."
Nonetheless, tomaintain this felicitous location, it helps to have Lenny Goodman sharing theaddress. A jockey's agent is crucial to the rider's success, as his fee of upto 25% attests. Agents are allowed only one customer, so a kind of symbioticrelationship develops. This is revealed best by the agents' sloppy use ofpronouns. They say things like "I ride the six-horse," when, to everyother naked eye, it appears that the 75% is in the irons.
As Tex Cauthendiscovered when he went comparison shopping among agents, Goodman is regardedas the best in the land—a view that probably is shared by Goodman himself.Quite often he prefaces remarks with: "Tell me if I'm wrong"—which aperson never dares say unless he is secure in the knowledge that no one willand he isn't.
In tandem, Goodmanand Cauthen resemble characters out of Dickens. A single glance suggests thatthis back-street sharpie must have obtained this innocent child from afoundling home in order to perpetrate some nefarious caper. But stay around,and see that it is no overlay. The kid, in his way, is every bit as dapper ashis emissary. Cauthen finds it hard to pass a mirror by without slylyinspecting his profile and searching for wayward hairs to put back into place.In civilian attire he favors a soft camelhair cap of a sort fashionable half acentury ago, and his dark, melancholy eyes give the eerie sensation that this95-pound child is Babe Ruth, shrunken by jungle specialists.
Goodman, on theother hand, comes prepackaged: Guccis, pinkie ring, hefty cigar, colorcoordinates. His silver hair, brushed back, glimmering, suggests that he haswatched too many Victor Mature movies. And tell me if I'm wrong: Lenny Goodmancan touch his tie. This is a lost art, going the way of shooting cuffs. Just atouch at the knot at the right time. Very few gentlemen can still do it justso. And, for that matter, with all the Sunbelt turning away from four-in-handsto wearing chains and necklaces, you are not going to see much more tietouching.
There is awonderfully sly communion between this disparate pair: Goodman, with hiscrinkly eyes, jesting with his pink-cheeked meal ticket. The kid does a greatdeadpan. "I'm riding this in th' ninth Sat'day, yahear," Lennyannounces, making subtitles in the air with his big cigar. The farm boy cockshis head, just enough to indicate which one it is who is still drawing the 75%.Lenny smiles. Neither one of them is going anywhere. "Lenny's making moremoney than the United Fund," another agent explains.
"Naturaltalent, sure," Lenny says of his boy. "But tell me if I'm wrong. Thereis no one around with a head like this child. Instinct, talent, intelligence.Put it all together, it spells Mother...or somethin'."
Cauthen goes backto his locker to prepare for another ride. He is truly scrawny, a factaccentuated by his ghostly complexion. But then, all jocks must be transformed.Their room is like a wizard's laboratory—such a surprisingly drab place ofbrowns and blacks, tack and trunks, peopled by tiny specimens in white knickersand, even, terrycloth robes. Only at the last do they change and leave,suddenly adorned in gaudy colors, flicking whips in the air with bravado.
Cauthen inspectshis whips before the day's races, testing them. Then, carefully, one selected,he trims it with scissors. A whip is a crucial implement, but ultimately it ismerely an extension of the hands. It is his hands that measure a jockey. "Ahorse gets the knowledge through your hands," Cauthen says. "He getsconfidence in the way you use your hands." In the final strides of a closerace, the accomplished jockey puts the whip away and rides the horse acappella, tight to the body, flowing with him, lending him energy and the humancompetitive element in ways that a whipping cannot transmit. The whole body isintimately involved in the exercise. The thighs, the feet, the shoulders, allpumping. But always it has been known as a hand ride, for it is the hands thattell the tale in race riding.
Cauthen's handsare outsized, the only large aspect of his body. But they are not farm boy hamhocks. Even with the mean scar from the Belmont spill cutting across the top ofhis right hand, Cauthen's hands appear to be the fine, long instruments of theesthete. And down to the wire, they ride a horse. Already, on the backside,there are whispers that some of the very best riders are spooked now when theyhook the kid in the last furlong.
There is no way toexplain this magic that Cauthen has with horses. He is a natural athlete, ofcourse. He has the necessary instincts. He senses pace: the clock in his head.Reflexively, he stays out of trouble. Joe Hirsch, columnist for the DailyRacing Form, who has seen the boy ride a thousand or more races, swears he hasnever once seen him make a mistake. Never.
But nothing elsematters if the jock lacks the ability to inspire the animal. That is the mysticgift, which none of them—Shoemaker, Cordero, or the child—can explain. Cauthensays that the horses he rides again exhibit no recognition of him on sight, butthey often do seem to remember him when he settles upon their backs. Somehowthis is revealing. Perhaps the horses sense that he cares.
"You alwayswant to win, sure," the kid says, "but the important thing is to getthe most out of your horse. If he runs the best he can, wherever he finishes, Ifeel good—for him and for me. And when you cross that finish line first on ahorse who is not the best—and you know it—that's the greatest feeling ofall."
There is a moment,somewhere, when the most beautiful and accomplished part of sport turns to art.But athletes are probably wrongly identified as artists. Rather, they are theart, not the author of it. Julius Erving is not a poet of the basketball court;he is a poem. As Reggie Jackson is not a drummer, but a tympani flourish:Muhammad Ali not an actor, but a prime-time series. What more shall we say:that Walter Payton is a brushstroke, Jimmy Connors a rousing chorus, Pelé ahymn? And Cauthen, what is he? It is hard yet to be certain. There are times,at the wire, when he reposes upon an easel, but other times when he seems toolusty for that, and we think of him as a ballad:
"When all theworld is young, lad,
And all the treesare green:
And every goose aswan, lad,
And every lass aqueen;
Then hey for bootand horse, lad,
And round theworld away..."
Hey, hey, for bootand horse, lad!
Yes—but in theend, Steve Cauthen remains a fairy tale, for it is not only that he has come sofar so quickly, so improbably, it is that he has come from one existence toanother, overnight, like frogs and princes. He may be the last of the line.Cincinnati will swallow up Walton, Ky. soon enough. Horses and blacksmiths willbe confined to racetracks, as hoop skirts and carriages are to Williamsburg. Noboy will grow up as a horseman, riding horses from childhood, feeding andtending them, practicing to master them upon bales of hay before dawn.
Riders will bemade in Taiwan.
Walton will bemade into suburbs. Already, says Ab Ryan, down at his implement store, hisbusiness in Walton is going toward lawn mowers, away from farm equipment. Thekids drive up the interstate to Florence, where the big shopping mall is, andkick tires over at McDonald's; the town got government money for city-stylesewers (instead of septic systems) and now ranch houses are flying up.
Oh, it is not allgone yet. There is still a town water tank, inscribed with high school classnumerals and the names of first loves. The main street, named Main Street,still features an inordinate number of houses of worship, beauty parlors andauto body shops, and a billboard at the edge of town urges that citizensre-think this business about our getting mixed up with the United Nations.Posters advise that a turkey shoot is coming up: "So come out and enjoy ashoot and win a little something."
And there arestill the trains in Walton. Two tracks run through town: the L&N, whichstands for Louisville and Nashville, and the Southern, which goes by theCauthen farmhouse. The engineer pulls his whistle right there, as the freightchugs into Walton, and it sounds loud and clear in the house, shrill enough todisrupt conversation, and shrill enough, for sure, to nourish the dreams of anychild who ever heard it there, just as train whistles have sung to ambitiousfarm boys down through all the years.
Steve Cauthen knewexactly where he was going. He would tell his friends he was leaving very soonto become the best race rider in the world. He would tell them that flat-out,says his classmate Mark Gordon, who will himself be leaving Walton aftergraduation this May, to join the Marines. And the other kids would hoot andmock Steve, call him "Superjock," and flick towels at him. But it wasin fun, and Steve would keep saying it, matter-of-factly. It was no big deal,it was just that he thought he could go out and be the best race rider in theworld.
And he wasabsolutely right. "What Steve has done, you can compare it with soapopera," says Mark Gordon.
Steve Cauthen, hisold friend, class of '78, says: "It's a pretty good achievement. It neverhappened to any other kid in the business."
Tell him if he iswrong.
By now Pelé seems more demigod than man: unique geniusof soccer, messiah of the game in North America, goodwill ambassadorextraordinary (the man for whom they interrupted the Biafran war). When heplayed his 1,363rd and last game in October before a Pelé-sized crowd of 76,000in New Jersey and then was lifted onto shoulders, waving the flags of the U.S.and Brazil, the ovation bespoke worship as well as admiration.
If Pelé's moment rang like temple bells, ReggieJackson's had a disco beat, the passions of the street. "Reggie!" theycried, over and over, when he hit homer No. 1 for the Yankees in the sixth,decisive World Series game against Los Angeles. Again, "Reg-gie!" forNo. 2. And "Reg-gie!" in decibels to wake the Babe himself, whosesingle-game record he tied when No. 3 fell, hugely distant, beyond YankeeStadium's center-field fence.