Because he was
such a mysterious new presence and such an appealing figure (and because he was
native-born), he captured the imagination of the country. Johnny Carson told
Steve Cauthen jokes, gen-u-wine media celebs like Barbara Howar chased him
cross-country for an interview; and such was the everyday journalistic crunch
that once, by the scales, two TV crews fought a pitched battle over camera
locations. "I'd come into the jocks' room in the morning, and there'd be
five guys waiting," the kid recalls. "And they'd be screaming: 'I was
first,' 'I'm next,' begging me to talk to them. It was ridiculous."
But if Cauthen was
a comet in the insatiable Famous People Industry—in the 1977 parade, videotape
highlights will show him marching somewhere between Anita Bryant and R2-D2—he
threw a monkey wrench into the machinery of racing wherever he rode. Until June
28 he kept a five-pound apprentice allowance—hey, gang, let's give Rod Carew
four strikes!—that utterly destroyed the equipoise of the ancient system.
Worse, there was no price to be had on his races.
Cauthen's success proved how far horse racing is out of the mainstream of
American life. He didn't sell. To be sure, for a substantial fee, he rode Steve
Cauthen Days at various outback ovals—Penn National, Latonia, Hazel Park,
etc.—and invariably he pulled warm, record-type crowds, but this was largely an
intramural matter of churning up a devoted existing constituency. Horse racing
has no rub-off. While Cauthen is the Bruce Jenner of 1977, the Simpson or
Seaver of his sport, while he grossed 600 or 700 grand, he made little beyond
the fringe; not a single endorsement.
Thus, in a
perverse way, while Cauthen is the biggest star in the most crass sport of all,
he has quietly returned to his roots, as pure a major athletic commodity as
there is to be found. Often nowadays he rises at dawn and goes to the track
just to drink coffee and hang around. "Saturday was always my favorite day
when I was growing up, because then I could be around racetrack people," he
says. "Nobody makes me come out mornings now. I just like the atmosphere. I
like the people at a racetrack—that's my people."
His is a scrawny
little voice, rather what you might expect, given his size. But it is of honest
timbre, almost devoid of backwoods inflection, and those grown-ups who have
spoken to Cauthen intelligently about things within his ken have found him
articulate, even garrulous.
"I'm not a
headline freak," he says. "I never wanted the publicity. All I wanted
was to be appreciated by the people around me, racetrack people. But I
understand the publicity stuff. In New York, everything's got to do with
business. Somebody comes to you because they need you. They don't necessarily
have bad intentions. They just need you at that time. I don't mind. Now last
spring, I was a tired kid. But it's O.K. now. I always wanted just the one
thing, to be a race rider, and this is the place to be one."
Cauthen is bred as well as any foal ever dropped in the Bluegrass. On the home
side is the father, the blacksmith, Ronald (Tex) Cauthen. On the shop side is
his agent, Lenny Goodman. One was raised in Sweetwater, Texas; the other come
outta your Brooklyn. Between the two, between Sweetwater and Brooklyn, there is
no virtue or value in race riding that has not been imparted to the child.
Tex Cauthen is the
salt of the earth. He grew late, to 5'9", and so no matter what the doctors
say, he is not altogether convinced that his oldest son won't shoot up a few
more inches from his present 5'1". If so, if so. Even now, the father's
primary emotion about his son is being happy for him. The rest he takes in
stride. "I just feel that Steve's doing what he's supposed to be
doing," he says.
His wife Myra has
trained horses, as have a brother and a brother-in-law. And her father owned
horses. It's in the family. She met Tex at the track. They are nice-looking
people, but they don't look a thing alike. He is dark and rounded, and she is
light and angular. And Steve doesn't look at all like either of them.
Apparently, he got the least of their height and the best of the rest of
bought the farm in Walton in 1965, when Steve was five, and they keep
broodmares there. At tracks like Latonia, a few miles up the road, or at River
Downs, Tex Cauthen earns $27 for shoeing a horse. It is one of the most honest
professions. There are no shortcuts. All about the Cauthen living room are
pictures of horses winning races for members of the family—trainer or rider—but
the one large painting over the fireplace is of a smith shoeing a bay. This
helps to keep things in perspective. The Cauthens remain very much in
perspective. The neighbors, ever-vigilant watchdogs in strike-it-rich cases
such as this, detect no new airs. The Walton Advertiser wrote a nice story on
the local boy when he passed Cordero's earnings record, but, in keeping with
priorities, the lead story that edition featured John Williams of Bracht Piner
Road, who was cited for raising a 17�-pound muskmelon.