Zenith and nadir

Steve Cauthen was 18 when he reached racing's pinnacle; he had nowhere to go but down

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There is something about the great jockeys that defies easy explanation. Yes, you can talk about the physical attributes required — the extraordinary strength, the balance, the courage, the will it takes to dance with a 1,000-pound animal, danger always a misstep away, mud flying into both of your faces. You can talk, too, about the strategic wizardry the great jockeys must possess, the vision to see openings where there are none, the precise internal clock that buzzes when it is it time to go, but not one beat sooner, the composure to find a winning path on a horse that just doesn’t have as much as the others.

But there is something else, something that does not translate literally into words, a mystical connection that binds jockey and horse.

This was the magic Steve Cauthen felt as a young man.

Even now, 37 years after he famously rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown — the last jockey to do it — Cauthen cannot quite explain that magic. Yes, he grew up on a horse farm in Kentucky. He lived the life. His father, Ronald (everyone called him Tex), was a race track blacksmith. His mother, Myra, trained horses. Stevie was raised on the language of horses. He grew obsessed with becoming the greatest jockey who ever lived. He watched old racing films. He studied different tracks and techniques. Friends would remember seeing him as a boy, sitting on bales of hay and practicing his whipping technique for hour after hour. Every so often, he would switch hands. This, as it turns out, would foretell his most famous maneuver.

Still, none of that quite accounts for what happened. You might know that Steve Cauthen was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year — the only jockey (or horseman of any kind) to ever win the award. When you look down the list of awards, it seems to fit in time and place.

1975: Pete Rose

1976: Chris Evert

1977: Steve Cauthen

1978: Jack Nicklaus

Yes, there is a list of 1970s superstars only … take a look at it one more time. Do you notice anything unusual about the list? Look closely at the dates. See, Steve Cauthen won the Sportsman of the Year Award in 1977 — that’s BEFORE he rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown. How did he do that?

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Well, he did it with a year that so boggled the mind, it transcended horse racing. Cauthen turned 17 that year, he was still in high school and he won 487 races. That broke the New York riding record by almost 200 victories. Frank Deford would write that it was like a Major League rookie hitting 90 home runs.

But it was even more staggering than that. Cauthen’s mounts won more than $6 million, breaking that national record by more than $1 million. It was, unquestionably, the greatest year an American jockey had ever had, and it was Cauthen’s FIRST year. Here he was, a fresh-faced kid just off the farm, still a junior in high school, and he was, time after time, beating men, the veterans, the Shoemakers and Pincays and Baezas, the greatest jockeys of the age.

And he did all this despite missing a full month after a terrible fall. He won his first race back after the injury, of course. The name of the horse? Right: Little Miracle. It was that kind of year.

Cauthen was so indomitable in 1977 that he singlehandedly drew the lion’s share of bets no matter what kind of horse he happened to be riding. This led to a close personal relationship between him and the bettors at the track. After a while, they relied on him, believed in him, counted on him. He once went two full days without winning a race, and when there’s money involved, people will get irrational and emotional. They began to boo him.

“The very next day,” Cauthen says now, and he smiles, “I won six races.”

Yes. Magic. They called him the Six Million Dollar Man, like the old television show. They called him Stevie Wonder. They called him “The Kid,” the same name they had once called Ted Williams. As you will see, it was magic that carried Cauthen through that unforgettable Triple Crown.

And, as you will also see, that Triple Crown run used up just about all the magic he had left.

* * *

In 1978, that year of “Superman: The Movie” and the lingering days of disco and the Camp David Accords, there was talk about making the Triple Crown HARDER. That’s how long ago it was. Secretariat had broken a 25-year Triple Crown drought in 1973 with his record-setting and mind-blowing performances. Four years later, Seattle Slew breezed through the three races and became the first (and still only) undefeated horse to win the Triple Crown.

Then, just one year later in 1978, there was Affirmed, another superhorse. The 2-year-old horse of the year was ridden by the wunderkind Steve Cauthen, the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. Looking back, it hardly seemed fair.

But, looking back, it’s easy to lose sight of just how unlikely it was for Affirmed to win the Triple Crown. For one thing, while Cauthen may have been the hottest jockey on earth, he had never ridden in the Kentucky Derby … or the Preakness … or the Belmont. First-timers do not often win those races. Going into that Triple Crown season, only two men in 25 years had won the Kentucky Derby on their first mount, only five had won the Preakness. Only four won the Belmont. The odds of a rookie winning all three was staggering.

Most of the Triple Crown jockeys had been experienced. Jean Cruguet on Seattle Slew was a veteran of the Algerian War and he had been winning stakes races for a decade. Ron Turcotte on Secretariat had won the Kentucky Derby the year before on Riva Ridge and had also won a Preakness (on Tom Rolfe in 1965). Eddie Arcaro on Whirlaway and Citation was the most famous jockey in America — he would win 17 Triple Crown races. You had to go all the way back to 1946, to an unknown young man named Warren Mehrtens, to find a jockey with as little Triple Crown experience as Cauthen (which is to say — no experience at all). Mehrtens, though, had been a jockey for a few years (he grew up around Aqueduct) when he rode Assault to the Triple Crown. Cauthen had been working for barely a year.

So there was the inexperience factor. And then there was this: Affirmed was not the only 3-year-old superhorse of 1978. There was the great Alydar.

Affirmed and Alydar. They are locked together now, like Ali and Frazier, like Evert and Navratilova, like Watson and Nicklaus. For months before the Kentucky Derby, people were already talking about the rivalry between them. They had raced each other six times as 2-year-olds (this was a time when horses RACED). Affirmed won three of the first five.

The sixth time they raced, at the Laurel Futurity, they flashed the promise of what would become the greatest rivalry in horse racing history. The Laurel was essentially a match race — the other two horses would finish 10 and 27 lengths back — and Cauthen took Affirmed to the front. The Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez, who won more than 6,700 races in his career, led Alydar on a furious charge as they headed for the stretch. The two horses then ran side-by-side for the last two furlongs, each taking a brief lead until, just at the finish, Affirmed pulled out front for the victory. It was so stirring a race that the handicappers were split on which was the better horse. Most still believe it was Alydar. And, little-known fact, Alydar was the morning-line favorite at the 1978 Kentucky Derby.

“He’d just won the Bluegrass by about 10, 12 lengths,” Cauthen says. “He’d been winning down in Florida by six, eight lengths. … I mean, we knew our horse was in great shape. We just didn’t know if Alydar had improved. It looked like maybe he had because he was just kicking everybody out of the way.”

Lost in the rivalry — and in the wonderful back-and-forth between Affirmed trainer Laz Barrera and Alydar’s John M. Veitch — was the fact that, for a Kentucky kid like Cauthen, racing in the Kentucky Derby less than a week after he turned 18 was almost surreal. So many incredible things were happening so quickly that everything blurred together. He did not have time to enjoy it, time to really let it soak in. Instead, he tried to block it all out by going over the plan with Barrera again and again and again. Get close to the lead. Keep the pace manageable. And then … wait for Alydar’s big move.

The race went more or less like planned. Cauthen was able to settle Affirmed behind a couple of the early leaders, and Alydar broke badly and fell well off the pace — at one point, Alydar was 17 lengths off the lead. It was almost too perfect. As they began the turn for home, Believe It began to make a move. Cauthen had to make a choice whether to go with Believe It or keep waiting for Alydar. This is one of a million choices jockeys have to make during a race. He decided to go with Believe It and hope that Affirmed had enough at the end to hold off Alydar’s late charge. In those days, it seemed, Cauthen never made the wrong move.

As it turned out, Affirmed had more than enough. Alydar’s final charge still boggles the mind when you see it on film — he gained seven or eighth lengths in the final furlong — but it was much too late. Affirmed won by a length and a quarter. “For whatever reason,” Cauthen says, “that day it took him a long time to get going.”

The Preakness was different; Velasquez on Alydar made sure to stay relatively close to the lead. The pace was fast, and Cauthen had Affirmed in the lead most of the way. Going into the stretch, Affirmed led, but Alydar began his charge on time and they were neck-and-neck halfway through the stretch. “I knew he was there,” Cauthen says. “But … I had a lot of horse left. And, you know, although we really quickened up down the stretch, I always felt that day I had him.” Affirmed beat Alydar by a half-length.

This led to the Belmont and one of the most thrilling races in Triple Crown history.

“The three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont,” Cauthen says, “are the longest weeks in the world for any jockey. But particularly for me. I was 18. And I didn’t want, you know, to be the cause of us not winning the Triple Crown. I didn’t want to make a mistake. And as it turned out, I couldn’t afford to.”

At the Belmont, Velasquez was determined to not run out of time. He and Veitch continued to believe that Alydar had the class to beat Affirmed down the stretch. The early pace was slow, just as Cauthen had hoped for such a long race, but with a mile to go, Velasquez sent his horse. “He tried to hook us early,” Cauthen says. “But, you know, my feeling was, ‘If you wanna go to the front a mile out, that’s fine I’ll just follow you. He really didn’t want to go — I knew he didn’t really want to go. So it was kind of cat and mouse until we got to the half-mile pole.”

And then — well, the last half-mile of the 1978 Belmont is as thrilling as horse racing or just about any other sport can be. There they were, two of the greatest thoroughbreds of that or any time, side by side, pushing and pulling, and at the top of the stretch Alydar did something he had not been able to do in either of the other Triple Crown races. He got his nose in front. And this led Steve Cauthen to revert back to his childhood for a move he had been planning almost all his life. He moved the crop from his right to left hand and, for the first time, whipped Affirmed on the left side.

“I think it surprised him,” Cauthen would say. “And, you know, it seemed to make a difference.”

Cauthen then shakes his head.

“But you know,” he says, “what really got him home was his heart.”

Affirmed took back the lead, held it and beat Alydar by a nose. Steve Cauthen, at 18 years old, had become the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown, a record that will likely never be equaled. Up to that point, he had always stayed composed, leaving people to marvel at how old his soul had to be. But after Affirmed beat Alydar that last time, Steve Cauthen raised his whip in triumph and then broke down in tears.

* * *

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If you were making a movie, you would end it there. But life, unlike movies, goes on after the sweeping music and the fade to black, and something happened to Steve Cauthen after the Triple Crown. It was not something he could explain then and, to be honest, it’s not something he really understands now. Steve Cauthen just stopped winning.

This is not hyperbole or any sort of exaggeration. He literally stopped winning races. He went on a staggering 110-race losing streak at Santa Anita, all while a nation of racing fans watched in horror. Boos began to greet him before and after every race. Friends treated him as if someone in his family had died. People were desperate for explanations, any explanation at all. Some said he came back from a fall too quickly. Some said he was just on an unprecedented streak of bad luck and subpar horses. Some said he was going through a late growth spurt. Some said that he had simply used up all his serendipity during that unprecedented two-year window when he could not lose.

“I can’t explain it,” Cauthen said when his losing streak reached 75. “Nothing is going right. Every jockey goes through slumps, but I don’t understand why this one keeps going.”

The slump, remarkably, even included Affirmed. After the Belmont, Affirmed lost a couple of races, but that was not unexpected — the Triple Crown will take a lot out of a horse. But beginning the next year, Cauthen rode Affirmed to consecutive losses, leaving Barrera in a terrible position. “There’s nothing wrong with him,” Barrera said of Affirmed. “Steve, I’m worried about. Racetracks are tough, cruel places. Maybe Stevie needs a little chance, to go someplace else for a while, to get out of this slump.”

The losing was tough and cruel. At one point, a photo of Cauthen looking downtrodden after a loss was plastered on the front page of the Los Angeles Examiner sports section. The headline: “Portrait of a Struggling Superstar.”

After the losing streak reached 100, Barrera made the heartbreaking announcement that he was replacing Cauthen with Laffit Pincay Jr. for Affirmed’s next race. “I cry for me,” Barrera said. “And I cry for Stevie. … Stevie isn’t my son, but he is. He was going so bad, I thought the best thing was not to have him lose on Affirmed again.”

Under the guidance of Pincay, Affirmed righted things, won seven consecutive races, including the Hollywood Cup and the Woodward, and was again named Horse of the Year. “Affirmed is greater than Secretariat,” Barrera said at the awards banquet. “Because only Affirmed had to face Alydar.”

Meanwhile, Steve Cauthen went to England. “People can expect too much of anyone,” Cauthen said. “I know that an awful lot is expected of 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.”

It took years for him to learn the tracks and the turf and the European way of riding. But slowly, he regained the magic. His career in Europe — England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy — is one of the greatest in horse racing history. He twice won the Epsom Derby, simply called “The Derby” in England. He is the only jockey to win the The Derby and the the Kentucky Derby. He won every major race in Europe except the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. He was British Champion Jockey three times.

And there’s one more Triple Crown story; in 1985 — on a wonderful filly named Oh So Sharp — Cauthen won the English Fillies Triple Crown. That is set up similarly to the American Triple Crown; it demands victories at the 1000 Guineas Stakes, the Epsom Oaks and the St. Leger Stakes (the last actually is a race that included fillies and colts).

Before Steve Cauthen, no one had won the Fillies Triple Crown in 30 years. And, well, no one has won it since.

* * *

Cauthen is ready for there to be another American Triple Crown winner. Sure, it’s good to be remembered — and he’s remembered every single time a challenger — like American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza — has a chance to break the drought. But he doesn’t see this the way, perhaps, some of the 1972 Miami Dolphins hope no other team goes undefeated. He’d like another Triple Crown winner because he thinks it would be good for horse racing. He’d like another Triple Crown because he’d like to see another jockey, one of his friends, experience the joy he felt.

Cauthen still considers that Triple Crown ride on Affirmed to be the highlight of his international career. He says it was the rivalry with Alydar, and the way it captured America, that stays with him over the years. He remembers looking at Affirmed after that amazing Belmont and realizing that he gave everything he had to give.

There is talk, every now and again, of making the Triple Crown easier. There are those who say, with modern training methods and the money incentives, it’s impossible to win the Triple Crown now. They say that the races should be spread out, the rules of entry should be tightened, horses who don’t enter the first two races should not be allowed to enter the Belmont fresh and so on.

Well, Cauthen is against all of that. The Triple Crown, he says, is supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be close to impossible. And when the right horse comes along, the horse special enough to win, another Affirmed, well, a nation will be enraptured all over again.

“Is American Pharoah worthy of winning the Triple Crown?” you ask Cauthen.

“Only he can prove it,” he says.