Let's not put Steve Cauthen on a pedestal yet," Eddie Arcaro said. "The hazards of racing lie ahead. If you ride enough, you're going to have spills. They can be serious, and everyone reacts differently. Some jockeys can't take the physical shocks of injuries." Arcaro spoke after Cauthen, racing's wonder child, hit the dust during a mid-February race at Aqueduct. His mount had wheeled as it burst from the gate, and the apprentice bailed out, landing on his feet. Unhurt and unfazed, Cauthen rode three winners and went over the $1 million mark in purse money later that day. Last Friday, his winnings now $1.4 million, Cauthen once again fell between horses as they broke from the Aqueduct gate—and once again escaped without a bruise. Twenty-seven minutes later he was guiding his next winner under the finish line.
Steve Cauthen seems touched by both luck and genius, a storybook figure whose tale is wholesome, warm and uncomplicated. Television would hesitate to invent Cauthen, but it certainly cannot resist him. Neither can advertisers, who are dangling $1 million in contracts before him. Nor can book publishers, already bidding for the 16-year-old's life story.
There's this kid from a tiny town in Kentucky. His father is a blacksmith, his mother a trainer. Born during Kentucky Derby week, he dreamt of being a jockey and practiced his whipping techniques on bales of hay in the family barn. Finally, he got his chance and his first winner. His mother owned the horse and an uncle trained it. Naturally, the boy closed from last place to win and, sure enough, it was the feature race. And as screenwriters of the 1930s would have it, the horse was a gray.
Steve Cauthen seems to be from a different time, one when people delighted in reading about an immigrant's son named Stan Musial who came out of Donora, Pa. to win seven batting championships, or a lad of 18 called Rapid Robert Feller, who had pitched baseballs to his father behind a red barn in Van Meter, Iowa, and then walked off the farm into the starting rotation of the Cleveland Indians.
Thus far in 1977 the 5'1", 95-pound Cauthen, from Walton, Ky. (pop. 1,800), has ridden 132 winners in 51 days at the nation's two most important winter race meetings, Aqueduct and Santa Anita. If he keeps it up (which is unlikely, as he will lose the five-pound apprentice allowance on May 27), Cauthen would ride 900 winners this year—and the world record for a season is 546, set by Chris McCarron in 1974.
To Cauthen his 17 winners last week were nothing spectacular; in one seven-day period in early February he had 24. But his performance was still better than that of any other jockey in the country as he picked up more than $190,000 in purses, and won his first $75,000 stakes race. When he rode only one winner on Wednesday
The New York Times
ran a six-column head that read CAUTHEN IN DOLDRUMS? RIDES 'ONLY' ONE WINNER AFTER 7 STRAIGHT RACES WITHOUT A SCORE. The following day Cauthen bagged three winners. As he stood with his mother in the winner's circle a photographer hollered, "Kiss her. Again, again, again."
Earlier Cauthen had sat with Barbara Howar of Who's Who for a long interview at Barn 2 on the Belmont back-stretch and heard a man say, "Sound roll 9, camera 13, take I." Cauthen was cold and tired, and he put his hands inside his jacket. Occasionally he stood and stamped his feet. "Steve," asked Howar, "did you learn to cuss back home in Walton?" The boy's answer was disarming. "Please?" he said. As the interview wound down a TV man came over to Cauthen's agent, Lenny Goodman. "How long will this show run on the air?" asked Goodman. "Twelve, 13 minutes," said the man. "Millions of viewers. Twelve, 13 minutes may not seem like much, but do you know how long it is?"
"It's long," said Goodman, "if you got your neck at the end of a rope."
The agent leaned against a barn door. "I know this can't continue." he said. "Nobody rides this many winners. Steve's been going to the West Coast to ride on Sundays and it has to be hard on him. The reason we did it was to let people see him, see how good he is. Race-trackers have to see things for themselves. He wants to ride in the Derby but I'd only want him there if he thinks he has a chance to be one-two-three."
"It isn't one-two-three that matters," said Cauthen. "It's just to be there. It's the Ball. The Big Dance. The Senior Prom."