The high school in
Walton, Ky.—of red brick, fringed by a garden of daffodil buses—lies in the lee
of the interstate that winds out of the Bluegrass, roaring north toward the
Ohio and the city of Cincinnati, 20 miles away. The school is the largest
building in Walton, for it must be big enough to hold all the children of the
town, and all those of the neighboring hamlet of Verona, and all the high
school myths and memories of anybody who visits.
High schools are
our commonest common denominator. Good Lord, they all even smell the same, that
stale institutional odor that can be disturbed only by another ringing bell.
End of the period. The children fall out into the corridors, moving with a
special rhythm, at a pace they will never again employ in life. Nothing else in
the human experience resembles the break between classes.
In a room just
beyond the clamor, the assistant principal, Mr. Tyler, muses: "Let's see
now, Steve would be a junior if he were still here, wouldn't he?"
"A senior, I
that's right. He used to go around with Gordon and Stephenson, that crowd."
There was nothing special about the boy: a nice little fellow, good family: an
industrious enough student, but capable of the usual adolescent hijinks. He
liked to trampoline, and some people knew he rode horses at 4-H.
There is peace in
the halls again, between-classes concluded, and soon only an outsider's heels
click upon the linoleum. Almost as one, the students of Walton Verona High
School stare curiously out their open classroom doors. Who dares violate these
halls before the bell? And only now, looking back at these children—in this
everyday setting, observing their normal, everyday routine—only at this moment
does the full incongruity and enormity of what Steve Cauthen has done loom
It is not enough
to marvel that at the age of 17 he has accomplished more in a year than any
jockey in history. It is not enough that already there exists the mad school of
thought that this little boy is the finest rider of all time. These are
incredible things to ponder about someone so young, but somehow, as young as he
is—and younger-looking still—the immensity of his achievement in 1977 cannot be
properly understood until you stand in his high school and see the open country
faces of the other children of Walton and realize that Steve Cauthen should be
there among them still. He should be a senior in high school this day, hearing
the bells and whiffing the smell.
And he would
be...but for the coincidence of his size and his family background, but for the
depth of his desire and some amazing gift of God that no one can
Instead, almost at
this very moment, several hundred miles away, when a bell rings, Steve Cauthen
will burst from the starting gate at Aqueduct, bound to his horse in consummate
harmony, seamless, one with the creature—a prodigy like none we have ever seen
before, the leading money rider of any year, a fearless athlete, a resolute
little doll-person, Sportsman of the Year, so very tiny, so very young, so very
extraordinary and ageless in his grace at this one thing he does that he always
calls "race riding."
His home is
crosstown from the school, a horse farm of 40 acres, hard by a train track and
the county line. His room has been left untouched, so that there is the
sensation of boarding one of those ships in the Bermuda Triangle, where
everything is in perfect order, but there are no people. Steve's
textbooks—Modern Biology being the most imposing volume—and the ribbons he won
at horse shows stand out as artifacts from that distant era.