At this stage of his career, Hirdes has taken a path remarkably similar to Cauthen's, in that Ronnie has had the same agents Cauthen did before Lenny Goodman snapped him up. He had Paul Blair down in Florida. Then when he shipped to Kentucky, Ed Campbell took his book. The agreement with Blair was that if Ronnie did well in Kentucky, Blair would handle him at Arlington Park, where Trotsek is headquartered. Blair had Cauthen's book for about five weeks when he rode at Arlington.
"But Cauthen was a finished race rider by the time he got to Arlington," says Blair. "Hirdes is riding against better jockeys and better horses here than Stevie did at River Downs [in Cincinnati]. It'll be another couple of months before he catches up to Cauthen at the same stage of his career. Hirdes has great hands and waits on a horse like Cauthen. He's got a lot of natural ability. Stevie didn't need mother-henning like Hirdes does, he went from 14 to 40 years old. From a child to a man. He had no boyhood. But there's no question Hirdes will make it, he's a cinch. He's a smart kid. He'll make mistakes, but he'll learn from them...if nothing goes wrong. If he doesn't get hurt or too smart-alecky. Some 16-year-olds get hold of a lot of money, they want cars and girls. Hirdes seems like a nice boy and has no bad habits. Doing as good as he is this early in the game is really an achievement."
Every time Ronnie is interviewed he is asked about Cauthen. Question: "Some people think you're the new Steve Cauthen, how do you react to that?" Answer: "I'll try to be better than him if I can. I'm still practicing in the mornings, working on switching sticks a lot faster and thinking a lot quicker, which I'm doing now. When I first started riding, I wasn't relaxed, I was worried about winning all the time. Not no more, I just take it day by day."
On June 18 in Cleveland, Hirdes finally got a chance to ride against Cauthen. The big race of the day was the 10th, the 1?-mile $150,000 Ohio Derby. Cauthen was on the 1-to-5 favorite, Believe It, and Hirdes was to ride the second betting favorite, 3-to-1 Batonnier. But their first meeting was the eighth race. Neither finished in the money. Cauthen's agent, Goodman, was asked to assess Hirdes' riding style. "Sits like Shoemaker," he said, "the long hold. Sits nearly straight up 'cause he's so short, and he takes a long hold. Steve is more like Baeza. He's taller, so he lies low and takes a shorter hold." About Ronnie's future, Goodman said, "Breaks have a lot to do with it. I think it'll be great if Hirdes stays around Chicago and builds up his reputation and confidence."
Hirdes confirmed Trotsek's faith in him by finishing second by half a length to long shot Special Honor in the Ohio Derby. Cauthen's mount, Believe It, failed to fire and finished a distant sixth, 5� lengths behind the leader. Now Ronnie knows what it's like to race against Stevie Cauthen.
The likelihood of two sensational 16-year-old apprentice jockeys coming along in racing in such a short time span is almost as remote as having back-to-back Triple Crown winners. But it happened. Seattle Slew and Affirmed. Cauthen and Hirdes.