Steve Cauthen: he came he saw he conquered
Brough Scott recalls how the US rider took British racing by storm
First published on Monday, January 9, 2012
When he flew in to Britain that April Steve Cauthen was to make a greater impact and leave a finer legacy than any jockey at any time. Sounds like a big boast but come with me back to the spring of 1979.
Cauthen came from Walton, Kentucky not Rome, Italy but like Julius Caesar this was to be a case of Veni, Vidi, Vici – I came, I saw, I conquered.
He was still 18 when he arrived but in the previous two years he had already conquered heights no jockey has ever reached before or since. His first full season was in 1977.
Weighing under 7st and standing only just over 5ft he outrode all America to land 487 victories and become the first jockey to win $6 million in a calendar year.
He was called 'The Kid'. The nation went wild. He was on every TV show from Good Morning America to Johnny Carson. He was twice on the cover of Newsweek and three times on Sports Illustrated, which named him Sportsman of the Year, the only racing person to be so honoured. There was even a record: And Steve Cauthen Sings Too! Actually, he couldn't.
What makes him great He set a new standards for race-riding by fusing the best of American poise and pace with the traditional strength and horsemanship of the British method. Even better, he was prepared to come out on TV and talk about it
The best of times The 1987 Derby. Reference Point was a long-striding horse who found balance difficult down the hill and up the straight. A masterclass in front-running balance and timing and whip-switching compulsion
The worst of times Goodwood fall, 1988. Cauthen had many bad spills, most notably in early 1977, without which his total would have been more than 500 winners that year. But Goodwood, when he damaged vertebrae and was out for the season, was centimetres from being a neck-breaker
What you don't know about him If he puts on a victory DVD it won't be of horses but of one of his daughters winning a dancing competition
What he said 'Of course jockeys are afraid. Anyone who isn't frightened going down to the start is a dope. That's not brave. Real courage is understanding the danger and beating it, appreciating the thrill, relishing the beauty of uncertainty'
What they said about him 'When he left the States he was a boy, gifted but immature. Now he's a man and the complete jockey. And a very nice man' Legendary US jockey Bill Shoemaker
Even over in insular England – no Sky Sports, no TV rolling news channels then – we registered that there was a new comet crossing the States. But not one in a million could guess that not only were there even more sensational feats ahead but that he would be on our shores within little more than 12 months.
In 1978, only just past his 18th birthday, he became the youngest and last jockey to land the American Triple Crown in three pulsating duels with his titanic rival Alydar culminating in the greatest stretch duel in history when Cauthen finally inched Affirmed ahead to land the Belmont.
What Cauthen had done was beyond imaginings but now he was here. To be exact he was in the rainsoaked paddock at Salisbury on April 7, 1979 with all eyes and the World of Sport (no Channel 4 Racing until 1984) cameras upon him.
He was a serious, bird-beaked manchild in long waterproof breeches. He could cope with bad weather but unfortunately Salisbury could not. In a scene guaranteed to reaffirm every foreign stereotype of the bungling English, I was left to fill for long empty minutes on the World of Sport microphone while we showed pictures of the Salisbury stewards' car stuck in the mud.
Cauthen was never going to be stuck. He had come over to ride for Robert Sangster and Barry Hills and it was for Barry that he brought a horse called Marquee Universal calmly through to make our first view of him a winning one. It was a good start, so too the unflurried and courteous way the young tyro handled the fevered press conference.
But in every sense we had seen nothing yet. Exactly four weeks later, on May 5, 1979, just four days after his 19th birthday, Steve Cauthen stepped into the British Classic arena and promptly won the 2,000 Guineas on Tap On Wood.
By any standards it was a stunning performance. The unbeaten Henry Cecil-trained Kris was a red-hot favourite but there was a cool authority about Cauthen's long, low back in the green-and-black stripes as he got first run and held on by half a length.
We media folk were almost tonguetied with amazement. Cauthen wasn't. For two years he had been asked every question on the planet by every microphone that could get near him. Talking to stuttering English questioners was like having tea with your granny. He had clear blue eyes and a deep Kentucky voice. We were in love.
By 21 that tiny 16-year-old had morphed into a 5ft 6in athlete with the big hands of his father Tex Cauthen, the racetrack farrier. The battle with weight had begun. For the first few years he adopted something of a 'champagne and flip' approach, which made him good company but would have hostesses complaining that a thief had raided the fridge at night. Cauthen was using the American 'heaver' system, whereby he would gorge himself with goodies only to 'heave' or 'flip' before it could settle on the stomach. People tuttutted but Cauthen was so charming that you could not complain and, anyway, he was a star on the track.
Not the complete package yet and, indeed, he didn't ride another Group 1 winner in Britain until 1983. But by then the class that was always there had adapted to the varied courses and cambers of the British scene that present so many more challenges than the regulation flat left-handed ovals on which he had learned his craft.
By the time Cauthen won a galebuffeted Champion Stakes in October 1983 by sheltering Cormorant Wood last on the inside and then slicing past Frankie Dettori's father and Tolomeo just before the post, I was writing in the Sunday Times: "To get through at all needed something like a miracle. To manage it and put the filly's head in front right on the line was as near a masterpiece as is possible in raceriding."
He was champion jockey next year and by mid-summer had already signed, much to Barry Hills's understandable discomfort, to ride for Henry Cecil the following season. "I think it's bad," grumbled Hills. "I will never make a young jockey again if this is what happens."
The initial frisson didn't stop Hills supporting Cauthen right through to taking that first title and remaining such a lifelong friend that Cauthen's televised tribute to his former boss was one of the most touching moments when the retiring trainer was feted at last year's Cartier dinner.
"Barry, you were a wonderful friend and teacher to me," said Cauthen, letting the years roll back with that Kentucky voice with its English inflections. "You were a hard taskmaster, but that was good. You were also a smashing guy and you and Penny were like parents to me."
"He was the best stable jockey we ever had," remembers head groom Paddy Rudkin. "The moment he arrived he just wanted to muck in. He wanted to know all the horses and would be the same with everyone. And we sure had some good horses that year."
They did – 1985 was an annus mirabilis not just for Cauthen and Cecil but for racing too. They were both champions in their categories and for the next seven seasons they became the most charismatic trainer/jockey double act that the game has ever, probably will ever, see.
Brilliant horse after brilliant horse would come back into the winner's enclosure where the foppish, selfdeprecating Cecil would answer queries with a toss of the head and a question of his own.
Afterwards the rider would return from the weighing room and take actual pleasure in sharing his unique insights with the wider world. Seven years earlier, Affirmed's trainer Laz Barrera had said Cauthen "must have come from Mars on a flying sausage". For us, any star would do.
That first year was the season of Slip Anchor's Derby and most of all it was the summer of Oh So Sharp's Triple Crown and that first leg, the three-way photo between her, Al Bahathri and Bella Colora will remain forever etched in the memory. A furlong out Oh So Sharp, inconvenienced by the firm ground, looked the least likely of winners. But Cauthen gathered her with that rhythmic unflustered compulsion and pumped her up to land it right on the line. It was in every sense a classic ride and it is because so many were to come in those so few following years that one can make the claim that Steve Cauthen made the greatest impact of them all.
For the previous 20 years the British jockeys' roster had been dominated by the unorthodox geniuses of Lester Piggott and Pat Eddery. Both had unique gifts of poise and determination and equine understanding. But both only led their imitators up roads they could not follow. With Cauthen even an outsider could see the sweetness of the movement, the lightness of the touch and the almost slow flow of that elbow-lifting rhythm that is the mark of class in any sport. Young jockeys would feast their eyes on it. Frankie Dettori was one of the first and most devoted of disciples.
Cauthen may not have revolutionised the style in the way Tod Sloan did. But it was he who brought the tighter, toe-in-the-iron balance which is now the default position and it was he, with his years of clocking on American tracks, who showed, most famously with Slip Anchor and Reference Point, that a front-running role can be no hindrance if you know how fast you are going.
Yet the greatest legacy was one of style both in and out of the saddle.
Steve was about sympathy, about doing things with class, and while Piggott and Eddery had always struggled with interviews to the extent that Lester's Brando-esque monosyllables became a national cult, Cauthen showed that friendly openness improved not only the rider but the sport's popularity.
"If I can set a good example then I'll feel that I have achieved something," he said. The rewards in the game are not just financial. Possession may be nine-tenths of the law but possessions are not nine-tenths of life. The most important thing any man can own is his own soul."
He was not to be with us long. Despite kicking the champagne in 1986 and winning a titanic 197-195 last-day duel with Pat Eddery for the 1987 title, the weight was taking a savage toll, not helped by a neckbreaking fall at Goodwood in August 1988. After a year as Sheikh Mohammed's No. 1 in 1992, Cauthen and his wife Amy repaired back home to Kentucky to build a dream home on the land he had bought from Affirmed's Triple Crown and then to raise what was to become a splendid family of three daughters in the clear belief that they should come first.
Every sport has its Everest mountain peaks. It takes a very special mind and body to conquer them. But it also takes an even more special one to keep ambition in its place. Driving away from staying with Steve Cauthen in November, I felt as I and millions of television viewers used to after he had come to talk to us on the box. Better for it.
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