On the day he went down, May 23, Steve Cauthen was at the top of the lists, riding low and hard. He had 275 winners, while no other jockey in the land had 150. He had racked up three-quarters of a million dollars more in purses than anyone else and was scoring with 27% of his mounts despite riding twice as many horses as the sport's stars. Willie Shoemaker and Angel Cordero were winning with just 15%, Jean Cruguet with 17% and Sandy Hawley with 19%.
The career of the superb 17-year-old apprentice could have ended that afternoon when his mount, Bay Streak, broke a leg while moving toward the lead in the fourth race at Belmont. Cauthen was barely conscious when lifted from the track. He had a broken arm, rib, fingers and would soon have as many stitches as a rag doll pushed through a sewing machine. Ultimately, it was not the seriousness of his injuries but the psychological bruising he might have suffered that made people wonder if Cauthen could return to the track a big winner. He had never broken a bone in a fall, never had to confront fear.
At dawn last Thursday, the day of his comeback, Cauthen appeared on the Belmont backstretch wearing jeans with a large belt cinched with a silver buckle. On it was inscribed, "GGF [ Golden Gate Fields] Thanks to Steve Cauthen. Largest Day, March 5." He had pulled 26,109 (who bet a record $3,017,424) to the track near San Francisco.
Cauthen walked without a limp, and as he moved along quickly, heading for the track kitchen, grooms, trainers, hotwalkers, owners and rival jockeys hollered from shedrows and out of car windows, "Good Luck, Stevie," "Rooting for you, kid." Cauthen has been called "the next Willie Shoemaker" or "the embryo Arcaro," but there is some Gary Cooper in his makeup. He has already logged as many yups and nopes as he has winners, but when he wants to say something, it is apparent he has thought things out carefully.
"No, I'm not worried about coming back," he said. "I'm sound and well. I've known all along that sooner or later I'd have a bad spill and have to come back from it. A million jockeys before me have fallen, and a million got up and rode again. That's all there is to it. There are a lot of people stuck in jobs they don't like, but they tough it out. I've been lucky because I'm doing what I always wanted to do. It's still what I want to do, more so now than before."
Clearly, Cauthen had dismissed the accident, though Trainer John Nerud had said of it, "You will only see a worse one if someone gets killed." Three horses had gone down in a tangle, Cauthen's and one ridden by Jorge Velasquez had to be destroyed, and Velasquez broke an ankle and had severe cuts.
Nerud, for one, believed that Cauthen's confidence would not suffer. "He will come back all right because he's tough," the trainer said. "At 17 you can look a tiger in the teeth and if it snaps at you, you look into its teeth again."
When Cauthen left the pediatric wing of the hospital in a wheelchair, his doctor said the cast that he had put on the rider's arm might remain there for six weeks, possibly longer. But Cauthen had it cut off after two weeks. By doing yoga exercises and lifting weights, he had strengthened himself to the point where he "couldn't stay away any longer." The quick return was a good sign, an indication that Cauthen was eager and unafraid.
As happens in fairy tales, The Kid won his first race back on a colt named Little Miracle, driving through horses in the stretch. He handled the mob of photographers and reporters calmly. As they pressed in on him, he advised them, "Patience—it's a virtue."
In his first three days, Cauthen accepted 16 mounts, won with five and finished in the money on six others. On Saturday he passed the $3 million mark in purse earnings, an amount no apprentice has ever won in one season. Only 11 journeymen have made that much in a year—but they took a full 12 months to do what Cauthen has done in five.