The less than magic number is 110, and it represents the consecutive losing rides engaged in by 18-year-old Steve Cauthen during a slump that lasted a month before ending, mercifully, last Thursday at Santa Anita, causing a series of reactions as bright and tender as one could ever hope to see around a racetrack.
It was an afternoon in which chill winds whipped through the stands and quilts of snow topped the purple-tinted San Gabriel mountains beyond the back-stretch. As the fourth race neared, part of the small crowd made its way to the walking ring behind the grandstand to watch yet another performance of a painful circus. Television crews were stalking Cauthen, the most publicized rider since Paul Revere, pointing cameras into his gaunt, old-young face. The losing streak was growing "beyond my worst nightmares," he said.
When he arrived at the track that morning Cauthen was aware that he had only four mounts for the day and that one of the horses would probably be scratched. He wasn't scheduled to ride in the fourth race, but he lucked into a mount on a horse named Father Duffy when Laffit Pincay Jr. was taken ill. How very odd. Only four days before, with Cauthen's losing streak at 105, trainer Laz Barrera had announced that Stevie was being replaced by Pincay on Triple Crown winner Affirmed in Sunday's $200,000 Strub Stakes. The trainer of Father Duffy? Se‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±or Barrera. When told that Pincay was ill, Barrera was asked who would ride Father Duffy. "Stevie Cauthen," he said. "Maybe something good will fall from the heavens. The whole Cauthen slump has been so crazy that something crazy like this might cause it to end. Maybe now the monkey can get off Stevie's back and everybody else along with the monkey."
Father Duffy was a maiden, a non-winner in 10 lifetime starts. When the starting gate popped open, Cauthen, wearing white silks with red cross sashes, sent the 4-year-old gelding up between horses on the first turn in the 1[1/16]-mile race. Cauthen kept Father Duffy just behind the leaders until the top of the stretch and then pushed him into the lead. But suddenly a horse named Vaslov ranged alongside, looking as if he would keep right on moving. Cauthen went to work with his whip. Even though Vaslov nosed ahead of Father Duffy, Cauthen kept the pressure on. Father Duffy won by a neck, and a few jumps beyond the finish Cauthen thrust his left arm into the air, the whip held high. The longest drought any top rider had ever endured was over.
People came out of the grandstand and clubhouse to run to the winner's circle, and although the attendance figures said there were only 13,645 of them, they somehow managed to sound like 80,000. There was thunderous applause and cries of "Stevie! Stevie!" Barrera looked up at the infield tote board. "No! No!" he said. "Not this!" The Inquiry light was on; the stewards had noticed Father Duffy and Vaslov bumping through the stretch. But after looking at the films the stewards allowed Father Duffy's number to stand. For the first time in so very long, that marvelous Cauthen smile appeared, and now it was a young-young face. Cauthen walked over to Barrera and buried his head against the trainer's chest.
"I saw myself on television that night," Barrera said later. "I cry for me and I cry for Stevie. Had I had a Triple Crown winner and somebody took him away from me I would have cried. My wife was an Olympic diver and all my sons have done well. Stevie isn't my son, but he is. I wonder later why I hug him and I knew. He was going so bad, and I thought the best thing was not to have him lose again on Affirmed should Affirmed lose. Taking him off Affirmed was the hardest decision I ever made. I wanted the pressure off him and on me."
What is there about Steve Cauthen that causes such reactions? Skill, youth, strength of character? Surely all of these. "I've had a chance to watch Steve on both coasts." says trainer Elliot Burch, "and I'll never forget what I saw him go through during his slump. Hell, a lot of jockeys have gone through losing streaks as long as 110, but nobody ever heard about them. Who could handle being covered by the press for a month of losing? Nobody until Cauthen."
A few mornings after Cauthen had ended his slump, Johnny Sellers stood at trackside at Santa Anita. Sellers has won 2,797 races, and he has known the glories that go with winning a Kentucky Derby (Carry Back) and being yanked off horses when there seemed to be no reason for it. "I was the leading rider in Chicago one year." he said, "and then I went into a slump. I went 60 races without a winner. Hardly anybody was aware of it. Boy. I knew I was in a slump, but I sure was glad no one else did.
"Mostly it's a case of being on bad horses, but sometimes you press. You zig when you should zag, and zag when you should zig. I knew only two things when I was in my slump. The first was that I wasn't doing anything wrong, the second was that I was 0 for 60. One thing about being a jock. No matter how good you are, if you go bad for just a little bit you know that Bill Shoemaker is only one phone call away."
By the end of last week Steve Cauthen was not only over his slump, but he was also drawing tremendous praise for his rides. The day after he broke the streak he rode another winner and then had a brilliant ride on a horse named Ida Delia even though she lost the $64,650 Santa Maria Handicap to the heavily favored Grenzen by a neck. On Sunday, Cauthen rode his third winner of the week.
What had Cauthen learned from going through the slump?
"Two weeks ago I was ready to quit Santa Anita and go back East and ride at Aqueduct," Cauthen said. "I didn't want to do it, but everything was going wrong. My car was packed, and I was going to stop off back home in Kentucky for a couple of days and think things out. Lenny [agent Lenny Goodman] wanted me to go back and I thought that might be the right thing to do. I went out to the racetrack the morning after we made the decision to return to New York, and several trainers came up to me and said, "Don't. Things will change.'
"One of the first people to come to me was [trainer] Jack Van Berg. He sought me out and pulled me aside. He told me it would be wrong to just quit when I was going terrible. He was going bad himself at the time, but he wasn't pulling up and leaving. I decided to stay in California and see the slump end."
When he broke his slump on Father Duffy, Cauthen was asked why he brandished his whip after crossing the finish line, an unusually flamboyant gesture for this poised young man. "I've only done it once before." he said. "I did it after Affirmed won the Belmont, after we won the Triple Crown. I normally don't do things like that. I knew before I started riding that times like this would probably happen. I guess I was lucky I didn't start out with a losing streak.
"People can expect too much of anyone. I know that an awful lot is expected of me and from me because of those two great years I had. Maybe because they expect so much of me they tend to get down on me real quick. I guess that's normal, but I'm normal, too. I know that when Affirmed lost he didn't lose because I rode bad. I rode Affirmed as well as Steve Cauthen can ride him. Will I root against him in the Strub? I'll root for him until I have to ride against him. I had a couple of chances to pick up other mounts in the Strub but turned them down. I thought that was the normal thing to do." (Affirmed also broke his five-race losing streak, winning the Strub, with Pincay up, by 10 lengths over Johnny's Image.)
There are 52 jockeys riding at the Santa Anita meeting. Half of them have not found the winner's circle yet. "By the time this meeting ends," Cauthen said last week, "I intend to be in the top 10. I'll work harder than anybody. I had the attention when things were going good and the attention when things went bad. The bad is over now."