It's a familiar enough scene. The very young, slightly built youngster is sitting on a stone wall outside the jockeys' room, listening intently to a trainer's instructions for the next race. Two teen-age girls approach the jockey, hesitate, then silently hand over their programs and pens. They stare at him as if trying to commit his face and this moment to memory. The boy signs his name and hands the programs and pens back. Not one word is exchanged. The girls depart silently. The youngster turns his attention back to the trainer. A minute later three track security policemen approach and repeat the girls' performance. This is a celebrity. But it's not Steve Cauthen. The jockey's name is Ron Hirdes Jr., and the man he's talking to is Harry Trotsek, the trainer who discovered him.
The girls and the policemen and all the others who seek his autograph this day at Thistledown racecourse near Cleveland are just what they seem to be: fans. They may have been late getting Cauthen's signature, not having known of his existence until he had become a big name in New York, but they're not going to miss out with this one. They've seen him in person and they have the autograph to prove it and maybe in a year or so he'll be as well known as Stevie is now, and they can boast to their friends that they met him when he was just starting out.
On Feb. 15 this year two important things happened to Hirdes (pronounced her-dees). He turned 16 and he got his jockey's license. A week later, in his native New Orleans, he rode in his first official race, finishing sixth on a horse named Hasty Mac in the fourth race at the Fair Grounds. On May 20 the boy did something that few, if any, 16-year-old jockeys have ever accomplished. He won a $100,000 stakes race, and it was only the 20th win of his career. It was a day when the racing public's eyes were trained on a race being run at Pimlico, the Preakness, in which Steve Cauthen was aboard Affirmed. Eight minutes after Stevie won the Preakness, Ronnie was getting ready to win the first leg of what turned out to be his own triple. He piloted Batonnier to a three-length victory in the $104,700 mile-and-an-eighth Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park in Cicero. The next day he flew to Thistledown and won the one-mile $11,125 Rosie O'Grady Stakes on a 4-year-old filly called Belle of Dodge Me and on the third day, at Arlington Park in Chicago, he completed his triple by winning the six-furlong $22,875 Four Winds Handicap by a neck on Famed Princess. And Hirdes won all three races without benefit of the five-pound weight allowance apprentice jockeys get in non-stakes races. As of June 23, Hirdes' mounts had earned $440,418 and he had won 51 races in 286 starts. Currently he is second in the jockeys' standings at Arlington Park to Eddie Delahoussaye, who leads the nation in races won.
Hollywood legend has it that Lana Turner was discovered when a talent scout noted her conformation as she sat on a stool in a Sunset Boulevard soda fountain. Trainer Harry Trotsek has been a successful talent scout for almost half a century. He has a sharp eye for conformation in horses and size and deportment in jockeys. He discovered and developed such riders as Johnny Sellers, John Rotz and Kenny Church. One fall weekend in 1975 he spotted and took an immediate liking to a 15-year-old boy walking a horse off the track at Churchill Downs. He didn't see Steve Cauthen gallop the horse, he just liked his hands, for one thing, and the fact that he had a nice seat on a horse. Trotsek turned to his foreman and said, "Do you know who that kid is?" The foreman said he knew the kid's father, so Trotsek told him to "go find out if he wants to go to Florida with us." When the foreman spoke to Tex Cauthen that day, the answer was, "No. He's going back to school."
Two and a half years later Trotsek walked into the track kitchen at the Fair Grounds and spotted another 15-year-old boy. "I met Ronnie in the early part of February," he says. "I hadn't seen him ride, I just liked the way he was built. He was light, young and full of pep. He reminded me of Cauthen. I was impressed with his compact size [4'11", 92 pounds] and his hands. I put him under contract two days later. He's come along very fast. He's just a natural."
Hirdes was in his sophomore year at Abramson Marion High School when he met Trotsek. The trainer got mixed reactions from Ronnie's parents when he first proposed signing the boy to a three-year contract. The father, Ron Sr., is a trainer and sometime longshoreman who almost became a jockey himself. So he was delighted. The mother, however, was not crazy about it.
Young Ronnie was not one of those kids who was put on a horse when he was two years old. In fact, he says, "I was scared to death of horses. I was about 11 or 12 when I first got on one. My dad had just bought a horse called Li'l Diamond. It was a little-bitty puny thing, run-down. I used to run and hide when he'd go out in back with the horse. I didn't want to have nothing to do with it." The cure for Ronnie's phobia was an ancient and primitive one. "My daddy kind of hit me with a strap a few times. To encourage me. He brought me around. He did a lot of yelling and screaming. That's how I started learning. I'm glad he did, 'cause I really like what I'm doing now. I'm not afraid now."
Ronnie claims he learned just about everything about riding horses on Li'l Diamond. He would take the 2-year-old colt over to a ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àöœÄth-mile bush track called Oak Downs in Pearl River, La. and practice in the gates for half an hour. Then when he was 13, he started riding match races with quarter horses there. It wasn't a recognized racetrack and a boy didn't need a jockey's license. "They raced all year round," he says, "they never stopped. Racing was every Sunday, 19 to 20 races a day. They'd start at noon and go into the middle of the night. I rode from June 1975 all the way up to Feb. 15, 1978. That's when I got my jock's license. I rode against boys that were nine years old and weighed about 45 pounds. Most of the jocks down in New Orleans got their start there at Pearl River, the ones coming up nowadays. I feel I gained a lot of valuable experience around the starting gate at that track. Most of the races were short and the break was very important. I even rode in a couple of races that were only 30 feet long."
So Ronnie had some experience when he was "discovered." As soon as the contract was signed, Trotsek took Hirdes to live with him in Coral Gables, Fla. and the youngster started riding at Gulf-stream. It was there that he won his first race on April 13 aboard a long shot named Kinkara. The boy was on his way. Next, he and Trotsek traveled to Lexington, Ky. for the last week and a half of the Keeneland meet, and Hirdes won his first two races there. By the time the meet ended he was fourth-leading rider.
From Keeneland, Trotsek and Hirdes moved on to Churchill Downs and Ronnie's introduction to Steve Cauthen on Derby day. "He didn't know who I was," Ronnie says, "and he was busy with the reporters and all. But after he got situated, I was introduced to him by [jockey] Bernie Sayler." Hirdes then went out on Batonnier and won the Twin Spires, the 1[1/16]-mile race preceding the Kentucky Derby. "When I got back to the jockeys' room after winning the race," he says, "Cauthen came over, shook my hand and congratulated me. He said I gave the horse a beautiful ride, and I said, 'Thank you!' After that, he won the Derby. And he gave me a rose off the blanket and said, 'Here's a rose to my bug boy here.' I really like him."
At this stage of his career, Hirdes has taken a path remarkably similar to Cauthen's, in that Ronnie has had the same agents Cauthen did before Lenny Goodman snapped him up. He had Paul Blair down in Florida. Then when he shipped to Kentucky, Ed Campbell took his book. The agreement with Blair was that if Ronnie did well in Kentucky, Blair would handle him at Arlington Park, where Trotsek is headquartered. Blair had Cauthen's book for about five weeks when he rode at Arlington.
"But Cauthen was a finished race rider by the time he got to Arlington," says Blair. "Hirdes is riding against better jockeys and better horses here than Stevie did at River Downs [in Cincinnati]. It'll be another couple of months before he catches up to Cauthen at the same stage of his career. Hirdes has great hands and waits on a horse like Cauthen. He's got a lot of natural ability. Stevie didn't need mother-henning like Hirdes does, he went from 14 to 40 years old. From a child to a man. He had no boyhood. But there's no question Hirdes will make it, he's a cinch. He's a smart kid. He'll make mistakes, but he'll learn from them...if nothing goes wrong. If he doesn't get hurt or too smart-alecky. Some 16-year-olds get hold of a lot of money, they want cars and girls. Hirdes seems like a nice boy and has no bad habits. Doing as good as he is this early in the game is really an achievement."
Every time Ronnie is interviewed he is asked about Cauthen. Question: "Some people think you're the new Steve Cauthen, how do you react to that?" Answer: "I'll try to be better than him if I can. I'm still practicing in the mornings, working on switching sticks a lot faster and thinking a lot quicker, which I'm doing now. When I first started riding, I wasn't relaxed, I was worried about winning all the time. Not no more, I just take it day by day."
On June 18 in Cleveland, Hirdes finally got a chance to ride against Cauthen. The big race of the day was the 10th, the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile $150,000 Ohio Derby. Cauthen was on the 1-to-5 favorite, Believe It, and Hirdes was to ride the second betting favorite, 3-to-1 Batonnier. But their first meeting was the eighth race. Neither finished in the money. Cauthen's agent, Goodman, was asked to assess Hirdes' riding style. "Sits like Shoemaker," he said, "the long hold. Sits nearly straight up 'cause he's so short, and he takes a long hold. Steve is more like Baeza. He's taller, so he lies low and takes a shorter hold." About Ronnie's future, Goodman said, "Breaks have a lot to do with it. I think it'll be great if Hirdes stays around Chicago and builds up his reputation and confidence."
Hirdes confirmed Trotsek's faith in him by finishing second by half a length to long shot Special Honor in the Ohio Derby. Cauthen's mount, Believe It, failed to fire and finished a distant sixth, 5½ lengths behind the leader. Now Ronnie knows what it's like to race against Stevie Cauthen.
The likelihood of two sensational 16-year-old apprentice jockeys coming along in racing in such a short time span is almost as remote as having back-to-back Triple Crown winners. But it happened. Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Cauthen and Hirdes.