Once the horses had pulled up and were cantering back past the clubhouse, Larry Barrera was the first to reach him. That was while women in the box seats, close to hysteria, screamed "Stevie, Stevie, oh that little baby boy! Oh, Stevie, I'll die!" And Larry's father was still working his way clear of a mob of well-wishers. By that time, Larry was on the track and catching hold of Affirmed's reins. Steve Cauthen leaned down as Larry grabbed upward and they hugged. First Larry was leading the horse, then running alongside it as they neared the winner's circle. Steve climbed down. The pair walked arm in arm, smiling, hugging again, in a last private moment before the TV cameras broke in. It was almost as if the two 18-year-olds had done it alone. Cauthen, rose-bedecked, face split with a grin, puckered cheeks, and young Barrera looking older, more contained, an elder brother despite their identical age.
Since just after Christmas, Larry Barrera, the son of Laz Barrera, trainer of Affirmed, had shared an apartment in California with Steve Cauthen. A lot of people at Churchill Downs last week expressed surprise that a youngster like Larry had been left in sole charge of several million dollars' worth of colt; before his father's arrival in Kentucky, he had looked after Affirmed for several days. They would have been less surprised had they known that two years earlier, Larry had taken similar care of Bold Forbes, his father's 1976 Derby winner. And, some might say, he has looked after Steve Cauthen, a far more complex task, in just as admirable a fashion at a time when, away from home and emerging into manhood, the young jockey needed someone badly.
But Larry could be of little help to Cauthen in the hectic buildup to the Derby. It is not easy, when you have just turned 18, to stand ankle-deep in mud and be cross-examined in public about your emotions, though maybe you could avoid actually yawning, as he did last Friday.
Still and all, just a little bit, he seemed to be spoiling the party. So there he was, the wonder child of his sport, coming home to his native Kentucky—to the track where, only two years previously, he had had his first professional ride—with a fine mount and a fine chance to win the Derby. And the warmest thing he could find to say, when asked if all this moved him, was, "I'm glad to be here." Even earlier in the week, in New York, Cauthen had been unwilling to admit that the Kentucky Derby, and riding in it for the first time, made much of an emotional impact on him. He seemed surprised anyone should think it a deprivation that he had not ridden in the 1977 Derby. Hadn't he ridden three winners that same day at Aqueduct? The logic was cold but convincing.
May 14, 1978
Since he went to California late last year, Cauthen has gained two pounds (he now weighs 97) and some sharp experiences, which may have hardened him. It was on March 9 that he was given a five-day suspension by the Santa Anita stewards for making no effort to keep his mount on a straight course just after the start of a minor race. When the horses came out of the gate his horse bumped another. The suspension was a heavy one under the circumstances; the interference had not come at a critical point in the race. But few jockeys would have followed Cauthen's course, which was to apply to a regular court of law for an injunction against the stewards that would allow him to continue to ride while it was in force.
The day of reckoning could not be stalled for long. Three weeks later, Larry Barrera came home to find the apartment silent and Steve reading. Then he looked up and said, "Larry, you can't believe what they did to me. They gave me the days." Barrera says that Cauthen was not fighting mad or wild but just deeply upset.
His suspension came toward the end of Cauthen's stay in California, which had not been as productive as the golden months in New York in 1977, partly because he remained loyal to Laz Barrera's stable. "He should have gone out and looked for other mounts," Larry says now. "He did win money, he did win races; but the thing was, the leading rider, Darrel McHargue, had everybody else's business. So Steve was working mainly for us. My father told him, you can go out and look for other mounts. But he stayed loyal."
To help keep Cauthen loyal, there was Affirmed, the horse he had first ridden at Saratoga last August. "Laffit Pincay didn't want to come all the way from California to ride him," Larry says. "Angel Cordero had won a race on him by a neck with not such a great field. He didn't have faith in him. He had in mind another horse that he thought could handle more distance, a better horse for the times to come. That was Darby Creek Road. Turned out he was wrong, eh?"
So Steve Cauthen really got Affirmed by default, but when it came to his suspension, when he missed the Santa Anita Derby, there was no danger that he might lose the mount. Affirmed was his. The owners made that clear.
Larry has known Cauthen long enough to distinguish between his apparent coldness and the genuine feelings that he keeps suppressed before a big race. "He's really cool inside," Larry says. "I've never seen him choke at all. I've never heard him fault himself or hit himself in the head and say, 'That was my mistake.' He'll hold all his emotions in until after a race. Then, although you won't see him singing or shouting, he will be very happy. He's blossomed out a bit socially. After the Hollywood Derby, three of us went out, me, him and a girl friend of mine. Place called the Hungry Tiger. Nice dinner but no champagne. In California you have to be 21. They'll give him a little wine, though, sometimes. He likes a little bit of white wine. He don't have too many friends. He stays close to himself, though he'll fool around with me. Like when I go out with him on a pony. He'll make fun of me all the time. There's a guy called Casey Tibbs? Big cowboy? He'll call me that."
The interior Steve Cauthen, as Larry accurately predicted, did not break out until about 5:40 p.m. last Saturday. In the clubhouse, his mother Myra was more vulnerable. In a box at Churchill Downs for the first time (she hadn't been to the Derby since 1974 when she saw it from the backside), she was flanked by her two other sons, her sisters and her brother. She was sniffling into her lace handkerchief for the national anthem and was in no shape at all for My Old Kentucky Home. But she choked back her tears, sucked in her cheeks and blew kisses to her son in the parade. And then, as Stevie came up the homestretch in the lead, her arms were round her son Doug, and next the whole Cauthen family was in a kind of mass wrestling match, a wild tangle of happiness.
And there was Larry Barrera running out onto the track and Steve Cauthen's face splitting into that rare, boyish, entirely charming grin. Seems that he didn't ruin the party after all.