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In New York, he boards with old family friends, but Cauthen's real habitat is the jocks' room at Aqueduct (or Belmont or Santa Anita in season) where he has the honor of an end locker, catty-cornered from Jorge Velasquez who, coincidentally, held the old New York riding record of 299 wins in a year. Cauthen will top that by almost 150, which, if you will, is comparable to a rookie hitting 90 home runs in the big leagues. His mounts have won more than $6 million, exceeding Angel Cordero's record of $4,709,500 by a full 27%. Three times this year the kid rode six winners on a nine-race program; four times he rode five; one week he rode 23. His best mounts, the 2-year-old Affirmed and the grass-running Johnny D., won Eclipse Awards—top U.S. honors—in their categories, because Cauthen gave them perfect rides in a couple of their major races. Withal, he missed a whole month of work after a gruesome spill in which his mount broke a leg, and he broke a wrist and two fingers, cracked some ribs, took 25 stitches and a concussion. He came back, galloped horses two days, and won his first race out on a colt named (no doubt by angels in heaven) Little Miracle.
In the process, Cauthen also became a phenomenon, which is really neither here nor there, but which does help us understand better the person and the exalted place he suddenly assumed in his sport's orbit. So much of Cauthen's saga is tied to the peculiar institution that is pari-mutuel horse racing, which has always been a hybrid entertainment and which recently has become a distressed industry as well. For a time the kid blew a breath of joy and humanity into a callous and cynical wheel. That moment is gone—the business of thoroughbred racing is business—but in the nuclear glare in which young Cauthen was scrutinized, we could discern the man's elegance behind the boy's downy countenance.
But make no mistake: while all of racing is a bet, each race is a sport. What Cauthen does is as athletic as what Lydell Mitchell and Pete Maravich and Guy Lafleur do with their bodies. In a way it is even more so, for their bodies are their own, not, perforce, attached to some 1,000-pound beast, charging 35 miles an hour, with brains as fragile as its sesamoids. "The horse is such a beautiful animal," Cauthen says. "When you're on him, in control of him, moving with him as one, it is a beautiful feeling." And then, in some reverie: "The best is when you're almost getting him to know what you want to do."
Almost. The very best is only almost. And sometimes you are all out, in close, side by side with jockeys who are as dim-witted or panicky as their mounts. Or, you are dead clear, unbothered—like in the fourth at Belmont on May 23, on Bay Streak. "What happened?" a microphoneperson demanded a few days later, as the child in the wheelchair came out of the hospital with his mother. "Horse snapped a leg," said Steve Cauthen into the metallic thing thrust into his bruised little face.
And Velasquez' mount, onrushing, had stumbled over him. Horse snapped a leg. Horse will snap a leg in some other race, too. "I haven't got any fears," the kid says now, summing up this old inconvenience.
Racing has few heroes. The Secretariats are shuffled off to the equine massage parlors as soon as they attract some fond attention to the sport. Jockeys are too small to identify with, and the general public perceives them as crooked little Munchkins at that. Besides, most of the good ones these days are foreigners—"the Spanish boys," as they are dismissed cavalierly.
Unlike other well-known athletes, jockeys appear from thin air. This makes them even more suspect. Who are these elves? Had Steve Cauthen been comparably talented in any other sport, he would have been a community celebrity at 13, a high school demigod, his value certified by the presence of scores of college and professional scouts. Everybody in Boone County knew about Lenny Spicer, who graduated from Walton Verona High in 1975 and signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But few in Boone County were aware that Steve Cauthen was even contemplating a career. And you can't ride a race until you ride a race. There is no spring training. "I was ready to die after I rode my first race," he says. "There's no way to get fit galloping. People have no idea."
People had no idea that, for years, the little boy had sat up nights with his father, a racetrack blacksmith, studying patrol films from River Downs. No one knew that he had worked summers at the track, mucking stalls, walking hots, staying around the starting gate; listening, learning, ingesting every nuance of race riding. Who had any idea? His friend Todd Stephenson stayed over at the Cauthens one night, and so he found out that Steve would get up at 4 a.m. and, in the pitch dark, dress and go out to the barn and sit on a bale of hay, and for two hours, in the still predawn silence that might be disturbed only by a train whistle, he would practice whipping. Alone, in the red barn, he learned to switch the stick from one hand to the other, to tag the horse precisely upon his tailbone. He learned.
His father gave him the anvil, but it was Steve Cauthen, the child, who heated the metal and banged himself into the shape that stunned experts when they first saw him ride. "A lot of jockeys start training a few months before they start riding," Cauthen says. "I grew up to be a horseman, not just a jockey."