Now who can this young sophisticate be, at his ease in the lobby of the Chequers Hotel, Newbury, Berkshire, England, where the armchairs are deep and leathery and the walls are hung with portraits of long-dead stallions? Notice, please, the precise barbering, the suede-finished breeches, the beige sweater that whispers cashmere at 10 paces.
Ah, he has found his friends. Golf, it seems, will be their diversion this summer morning. They load their clubs into the trunk of his customized Capri. Time to be leaving for the Newbury and Crookham Golf Club, where ancient oaks shadow the greens. Nine leisurely holes before lunch. Life has many compensations these days for Steve Cauthen, Esquire, late of Walton, Ky., residing at present in Lambourn, Berks.
To anyone who had been exposed to the 1977-78 model Steve, the one that featured monosyllabic responses and a just burgeoning awareness of the social graces, the new one, completely redesigned by Robert Sangster, comes as something of a shock. As does the suggestion, to Englishmen who have known him only since last spring, that he was ever anything but urbane and outgoing.
It would be only a mild exaggeration, indeed, to say that Cauthen is America's most popular export to England since the first cartons of Spam arrived in the darkest days of World War II. Typical is a comment by a white-mustachioed ex-military gent in the royal enclosure at the recent Ascot races. "Cauthen?" he barked. "Fine young man! Fine ambassador for his country! Makes up a bit for that bloody fella McEnroe!"
July 8, 1979
Steve Cauthen has matured dramatically in his few months in England, and maybe the best witness to this is Bill Shoemaker, who was there to ride in the Epsom Derby. "Steve has grown up here," he said. "He's become a man."
Maybe it would have happened anyway in the nature of things. But this sudden maturation must also owe a lot to the careful stage-managing and nurturing that the young jockey received from Sangster, the wealthy English horse owner who signed him to a contract reportedly worth $400,000 to ride for him during the English flat (as opposed to steeplechasing) season running from late March to November. English jockeys do not normally have agents, but Cauthen clearly needed one. What he got was more an agent-cum-adviser and confidant: Jimmy Lindley, an ex-jockey of some repute in Europe who now writes a column for the Daily Mail and plays an Eddie Arcaro-like role on BBC-TV.
Lindley, a sharp, astute man, saw to it that Cauthen was taken out to dinner with such respected English jockeys as Joe Mercer and Greville Starkey, as well as Lester Piggott, possibly the world's greatest jockey and another of Sangster's riders. Piggott, Sangster says, was so alarmed at the news of Cauthen's coming that for the first time in his career he insisted on a contract himself. It gave him first pick of horses trained by Vincent O'Brien, Sangster's No. 1 trainer, leaving Cauthen to ride for Barry Hills, the junior man, so to speak, in the Sangster racing organization.
Lindley took care of such details as the hiring of Cauthen's valet, a popular ex-jockey named Des Cullen. who also attends to Piggott's riding kit. "That kicked him off to a good start in the weighing rooms," says Sangster, and that good start, among fellow jockeys, was essential. When Cauthen arrived in England, there were protests from native jocks over his obtaining a work permit—some Englishmen had been refused permission to ride in the U.S. But Cauthen's entrèe into the English racing world was managed so deftly that such protests were few and muted.
Sangster had another selling job to do. The English racing public had to buy Steve Cauthen, potentially a tall order. It is a highly knowledgeable public: all the newspapers, for example, devote considerable, sometimes massive, space to racing coverage, and gambling on horse racing is far more general than it is in the U.S. The lady with her hair in rollers investing a little of the housekeeping money at the corner betting shop is an archetypal figure. If Cauthen was going to progress from the suspicious appellation "That Young Yank" to a warmer "Stevie," it would be mostly on account of the lady in the betting shop.
The setting in which Cauthen was to make his debut was the April meeting at Ascot, near London, perhaps the most elegant of English racetracks. Bad going there, however, caused the racing to be transferred to Salisbury, a small country track. That Saturday, April 7, the heavens opened. A monsoon deluged the record crowd. The stewards' car bogged down in the mud. A less auspicious debut would be hard to imagine.
The outcome, though, was perfect. The vile conditions through which Cauthen brought his mount Marquee Universal to win made a better story than a first victory at prim-and-proper Ascot would have. It was a story made better still when Jimmy Lindley recounted how he had walked the track with Steve the previous Thursday and how Steve concentrated so hard that Lindley reckoned he was counting every blade of grass, and how on race day Steve had kept the horse "right on course with our bloody footsteps."
The media coverage was enormous. The wire-service pictures of Cauthen's mud-daubed, boyish features made short work of the betting-shop ladies, and—a lucky stroke for Cauthen's promoters—there was a perfect catchphrase at hand. In the 1920s and '30s there flourished perhaps the most popular of all English jockeys, Steve Donoghue, six times winner of The Derby and 10 times champion jockey, who, long after he had retired, would be greeted at the track with the roar of "Come on, Steve!" The day after Salisbury, at least half of Fleet Street resurrected the phrase. The English love affair with the young American had properly begun.
That love, it seems, is genuinely reciprocated. "England is small and beautiful and the whole country is just horse crazy," Cauthen says. "The fans at the races are very knowledgeable. You don't get all the boos for nothing; the fans aren't so critical." He meant mindlessly critical, thinking perhaps of the rough treatment he got from the racegoers at Aqueduct and Santa Anita late last year and early in '79. His annus mirabilis of 1977 evidently counted for naught, not to mention his Triple Crown victory in '78 on Affirmed; he was losing now and, at one point in February, he had lost 110 straight at Santa Anita.
"It's the people I love here most of all," he says. "In America I was always told that the English are hard to get close to. That's far from being true. I've never been so happy in my life."
Couldn't this infatuation with England be a reaction, though, to being rejected at home? Didn't he miss, for example, that magnificent animal Affirmed?
"I wouldn't have felt too good, would I," he concedes, "sitting there watching Affirmed with Laffit Pincay on his back? But I wish him the best. Affirmed was the best horse I was ever on. I was sad that things went bad, but if you worry about things like that you go crazy. One thing doesn't stop your life. I haven't spoken to Laz Barrera [Affirmed's trainer] since I left California. But I sent him flowers when he had his heart operation. I've got no hard feelings for him."
Cauthen's move to England wasn't made on the spur of the moment. Sangster wanted him long before the losing streak and long before Barrera put Pincay on Affirmed. After all, this was the same teen-ager whose mounts had won a record $6,151,750 in 1977, only his second year as a jockey. "I didn't want to come when Robert first asked me, about Derby time last year," Cauthen says. (He pronounces it "Darby," the English style, now, and doesn't feel the need to qualify it with "Epsom.") "But I had too many engagements."
Sangster takes up the tale. "Steve actually rode a winner for me at Santa Anita when he was still 16. I had always been impressed with him. Then, last January, I was in a hotel in Los Angeles, lying in bed reading a magazine: there was a piece about his run of bad luck. So I called my L.A. agent. 'Try Steve at the races,' I said. 'See if he will come over for a year. He might be a little depressed.' "
Sangster did his best to assure that Cauthen wouldn't be depressed in England. Perhaps Sangster had seen something in the young man that hadn't been spotted by anyone earlier—a propensity for the social graces—and it was not long before Steve was tossed in at the deep end, at a country house party, no less, given at York by Sir Timothy Kitson, M.P. for Richmond, Yorkshire. Steve took to the scene immediately, says Sangster, sitting in his tuxedo after dinner, sipping port with the gentlemen when the ladies had retired, playing tennis and golf.
Above all, suddenly he was winning races again, not only in England but also in Germany and Italy. He celebrated his 19th birthday on May 1 by riding three winners at Bremen.
Cauthen has a ready answer when asked about the difficulties the unfamiliar tracks must have caused him. "I've thought all about that," he says, "but see now, I've ridden all my life. I started out riding the hillsides of Kentucky. You can ride a horse wherever he'll go, can't you? There was no reason I shouldn't adapt."
The truth is a little more complex, however. What Cauthen has done in Europe is to apply himself meticulously to research. Each time he encounters a new track he studies it at close quarters. After Cauthen's first English meeting, Richard Baerlein, the respected racing correspondent of The Guardian, wrote, "Cauthen is a maker of horses, not just a rider of winners." Obviously, the most impressive thing about the American is his professionalism.
George Ennor, president of the Horserace Writers' Association in England, cites two of Cauthen's early races as particular examples of his consummate professionalism. One was a comparatively unimportant race at the Epsom spring meeting on April 26. Three horses were involved and one of them didn't count for much. The race came down to Lester Piggott on Armistice Day and Cauthen on Joleg.
"Cauthen led at no particular speed for about five furlongs," Ennor says. "Then, at the top of the hill, Lester went to the front, on the outside, and immediately went straight across Steve, did his best to stop him there. Typical piece of Lester gamesmanship. They turned for home, three furlongs to go, Lester a length and a half in front. Obviously, Steve started to try and go inside him, and Lester whizzed back across and shut him off again. But Steve stayed cool; he knew he couldn't get too close or he was going to get stopped. A furlong and a half from home, Steve moved right outside, kicked on hard and beat him. Sounds simple, but he could have easily been flummoxed by a typical crafty Piggott maneuver."
The other race was at Newmarket, the Prince of Wales Stakes, with Cauthen riding Hawaiian Sound (on which Shoemaker had come close to winning the Epsom Derby last year). Two furlongs after the start Cauthen's saddle slipped. "He's got nine furlongs to go across the flat, dead straight," Ennor says, "and he's halfway up the neck of this horse. Not only did he keep the horse in balance and himself totally calm, but he also won the race."
The final confirmation to the English racegoer that Cauthen was not just a reputation came on May 5, a few hours before Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby. That was in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, the first race of the English Triple Crown, with the American on a 20-to-1 chance, Tap On Wood, and up against two of England's best jockeys, Mercer and Starkey. Cauthen held well off until two furlongs from home, when he went after the leader, Kris, with Mercer aboard. He pushed his horse a nose ahead of Mercer's. Then Starkey on Young Generation pulled around both. It looked to be over, but, switching his whip to his left hand, Cauthen moved again, drove hard and straight the last hundred yards and won by half a length.
A month ahead was The Derby, the 200th running of the world's greatest race, the richest for thoroughbreds ever to be run—$532,098 in prize money and $317,198.80 for the winner.
Before the big race Cauthen seemed to have three rides from which to choose—on the Guineas winner, Tap On Wood, on Cracaval, or on Two Of Diamonds, all horses from Hills' stables at Lambourn, none of them belonging to Sangster. There was much heart-searching. Tap On Wood might have seemed the obvious one, but the Guineas was over a mile, The Derby is a mile and a half. There were doubts as to Tap On Wood's ability to "do the trip," as English horsemen say.
Meantime there had been yet another accolade for Cauthen—of a kind. He had become the subject of a spoof series in the English satirical weekly Private Eye. The series was called "A Yank at Ascot." It featured "Ex-hill-billy, 18-year-old Steve Fourthon, winning jockey on the bobtailed nag at Camptown Races." imported, of course, by Bob Gangster. It hinted at champagne parties and other wild doings, and finally married "Fourthon" off to 17-year-old Maureen Piggott, the great jockey's daughter.
Cauthen, in fact, had not yet met Maureen when the series appeared. Oddly, on Derby night he did—Sangster had taken a private room at Annabel's, the well-known London nightclub, possibly with a celebration in mind. Maureen and Steve danced the night away, but there was no celebration. Tap On Wood, which Cauthen had elected to ride, had come in 12th, never making any kind of show.
But even with The Derby chance gone, there were still peaks to be scaled for Cauthen in the English racing season, notably the Royal Ascot meeting in June. No single race at Ascot was as important as The Derby, but the program as a whole is impressive—almost every race a stakes. To be top jockey at Royal Ascot, which runs over four days, is an important achievement in itself—bookies lay odds on it. When Steve first arrived, the bookies had quoted odds on the number of winners he would ride through the English season. You could get 100 to 1 on his scoring a prodigious 150 wins, 33 to 1 on 10 or fewer and, of course, graduated odds on other totals. As of last weekend he had 22 winners.
In the interim between The Derby and Ascot, though, Cauthen seemed to lose momentum. At one point he had 25 rides without a winner. Was it possible that another California losing streak was going to hit him? Rumor was rife, but, as was not the case in California, where every kind of speculation was voiced, it boiled down to one thing.
Stables in England this year have been badly affected by a virus, a sort of equine flu, which is uncommonly hard to detect until a horse actually puts on a below-par performance on the track. O'Brien's stables in Ireland had been hit early on. Was it possible that Hills' 120-strong string had also been affected?
Up until Ascot, however, Hills himself said only that his horses "hadn't been going well." Nevertheless, fewer were going to the post. Because almost all of Cauthen's rides were on Hills' horses, it meant that he had been failing to score also. Significantly, the racing public in England took this into account. There was no sign of a Cauthen witch-hunt.
At home near Newbury, in the cottage where he now lives (with a housekeeper and a full-time secretary), Cauthen took the reversal in his fortunes calmly. With fewer mounts to ride, Cauthen had time to improve his golf, a game that fascinates him although he has played it no more than half a dozen times. He doesn't suffer from mock modesty over it, either. He took some lessons from a pro, he'll tell you, at the Sunningdale course in England, and what should the pro discover but that he has a natural swing and should take no more lessons for a while, to allow it to develop.
Now at the Newbury and Crookham course the clubs came out of the customized Capri and, though it was raining, Cauthen played a foursome with English jockeys Phillip Waldron, Paul Cook and Bob Street. Steve's first try at a drive gouged out a large chunk of raw Berkshire, which he replaced before slicing his second shot. "You nearly got 'old of that," Cook told him sarcastically. But his game improved. It included one implausible 35-foot putt that sent him leaping in the air with delight.
Playing through the rain with stoicism worthy of an Englishman, he put his next drive deep into the oak jungle. At lunch an hour later in a Newbury restaurant called The Sapient Pig, Cauthen nevertheless proffered advice to Street: "Bob, you get too tense, you don't swing back far enough."
Cauthen ordered Bollinger champagne, but the sophistication slipped a little when the waiter suggested he might like a coarse pate of veal and pork for a beginning, or possibly the avocado stuffed with anchovy and sour cream.
"You got a tossed salad?" Steve asked. "Could you put some chunks of cheese on it?"
Maybe this had something to do with a concern about weight. One of the question marks over Cauthen's racing in the U.S. was his weight gain to 112 pounds. He insists that his weight is a stable 107, but this does not match up with the entries in the English form books, which seem to indicate that 112 is as low as he can get now.
From food the talk went back to racing, English racing, and the question that everybody brings up—what it takes to adapt to English tracks. "Look," Cauthen said, "in America you have to adapt yourself to different tracks. You have to change your methods for a mile race as opposed to one at a mile and a half. Perfect example is what happened to Ronnie Franklin in the Belmont. He moved where he would have on a mile track, but he should have moved about two furlongs further out."
What struck Steve most of all when he went to England was the difference in training sessions. English trainers have private stables far removed from the tracks, and their horses train on gallops near home, not on the tracks themselves. Hills' horses exercise on the Berkshire Downs, rolling grassy hills of unspoiled beauty. "Oh, it's so different," Cauthen said. "That's part of the beauty of it. The first morning I rode out, there was a bit of a mist; it was eerie—60 horses in one string, walking across the ridge on a misty morning with a bit of sun. It looked so beautiful. I ride out twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, and I ride out other days because I love it."
So he might be returning to England? Cauthen answered firmly, "I'm going to be back here next year." In the five-month off-season in English racing, he will do as most English jockeys do—travel East. To begin with, he'll ride in Japan. Then, maybe, Australia. He wants a month at home, on his parents' farm. Then maybe a month's riding at Santa Anita before he heads back to Lambourn and Barry Hills.
But next on the program was Ascot, and a sad one it turned out for both Hills and Cauthen. No winners. On Ascot's last day, there was an announcement that Hills was temporarily closing his Lambourn Stables. "My horses have respiratory troubles," he conceded.
And so the rumors had been right. It was a pity that Steve Cauthen's explosive start in England couldn't keep right on crackling, but what a time he's had.