At River Downs in Cincinnati they've been making the comparisons all summer. In May 1976 Steve Cauthen, the 18-year-old son of a horse trainer, arrived from Walton, Ky., 30 miles distant, and despite his apprentice status quickly became the track's leading jockey, winning a record 109 races and launching a career that would be capped by the 1978 Triple Crown, aboard Affirmed, and three Eclipse Awards. Twenty-six years later, here comes John McKee, 21, the son of a jockey from Hamersville, Ohio, 30 miles distant, and guess what? The apprentice is the leading jockey at River with 97 wins through Monday and $595,944 in purses. In July, McKee became the first apprentice to ride 65 winners at the track before Aug. 1. ( Cauthen had 64.) With a week left in the meet, Cauthen's record is clearly in jeopardy.
Both men seem to have been born to ride, being small even by jockey standards: McKee is 4'11", 95 pounds; Cauthen, in his first season, was 5'2" and 87 pounds. But outside the record books, their paths have not crossed. "I've never met or talked to Steve Cauthen," says McKee, whose father, David, rode at River 20 years ago, "but it's a thrill just hearing my name with his. I remember my dad talking all the time about how great Cauthen was."
Some are already saying that about McKee. "He's as good as Cauthen was when he started," says former Downs steward Mike Manganello, who rode Dust Commander to victory in the 1970 Kentucky Derby. "The kid's clearly a natural."