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The moment the roar from the crowd of 250,000 died away after the 206th running of the Derby last week at Epsom Downs, England, little knots of Americans suddenly and spontaneously burst into song. "I'm a Yankee Doodle dandy," they caroled, "A Yankee Doodle do or die...." Most of the Americans were tourists on vacation, and they were over the moon with joy at the triumph of Steve Cauthen, 25, late of Walton, Ky., now of Lambourn, Berkshire. Seven years ago Cauthen had won the Kentucky Derby, aboard Affirmed, and now he had ridden Slip Anchor, the 9-4 favorite, to a spectacular Epsom Derby win, thus completing a double that is unique in horse racing.
The British were as happy as the Americans. "The most popular foreign winner since the original Yankee Doodle Dandy days of Danny Maher in 1905 and 1906," declared the London Daily Mail the next morning, referring to the native of Hartford, Conn. whose two Epsom Derby victories came on Cicero and Spearmint. You would have had to search very hard indeed in England to find evidence to contradict the Daily Mail. Even without Cauthen's personal popularity in the country, the sheer brilliance of his Epsom Derby win would have assured his fame.
But let the Yankee Doodle Boy tell of the race in his own words, which, these days, come out in a kind of rural, West of England burr. "I was out in front not 50 yards after we broke," said Cauthen. "I let him have his stride, and before Tattenham Corner [about a mile into the 1�-mile race], I knew I'd won. I quickened up then, using the momentum of the downhill, and there was nobody near me. All I had to do was keep him together and balanced. By then I was seven lengths clear. By the time we hit the straight, I looked over my shoulder and I was 15 lengths ahead. I knew that nothing could possibly catch me."
So Cauthen put the 3-year-old Slip Anchor into cruise control and eased past the post seven lengths in front of Law Society, a winning margin that has been bettered only twice in this century, by Manna (eight lengths) in 1925 and the kidnapped, never-to-be-found Shergar (10 lengths) in 1981. No Derby winner had been out in front of the field for such an uninterrupted period since Coronach won in 1926. No wonder that, next morning, two Fleet Street papers came out with the headlines, YANKEE DOODLE DODDLE and YANKEE DODDLE DANDY, doddle being British soccer slang for an easy game, a sporting piece of cake.
And that's the way it looked as Cauthen streaked home in the all-apricot colors of Lord Howard de Walden. In 1902, in a prophetic bit of advice, the artist Augustus John suggested to de Walden's father that he register his silks as apricot since that color showed up so finely against the green of the Epsom grass. Also showing up finely was Steve's father, Tex, resplendent in a dove-gray topper and a diamond-studded ascot. "I told my dad I'd win," Steve said, "so he came over and I won."
Cauthen was asked which horse was the more impressive, the American Triple Crown winner Affirmed or Slip Anchor. In the immediate aftermath of the Derby, he had no doubts. "I'd have to say that Slip Anchor is the better," he declared. Later, though, he would hedge. "They are different types of horses," he said. "Affirmed never won by more than he had to. He was very idle. But this horse is so resolute, a tremendous galloper. He kills the opposition before it has a chance to get near him. I never rode a horse with so much stride on him. When he began to move down the straight, it was just a question of holding him together. I just let him into his stride and he opened up this unbelievable gap. On his own steam. On the bridle."
When Cauthen opened up "this unbelievable gap" in the stretch, a quarter of a million voices rose as one, for Cauthen has become one of the most popular figures in English sport. Only a few old-timers would think, with a sweet nostalgia, of the significance of what many were shouting: "Come on, Steve!"
For most of the teens and part of the '20s, a jockey named Steve Donoghue owned the hearts of English racegoers. He won the Derby six times and was champion jockey from 1914 through 1922. Even folk who had never been to a racetrack would cry, if they wanted to urge somebody on with a task, "Come on, Steve!" The phrase has passed into the language.
And last week it looked as if it were being reborn. Though Steve C. has a long way to go before he reaches the heights of Steve D., in 1984 he took the British jockeys' championship for the first time, with 130 winners, the first American to achieve that prize since Maher did it back in 1913. Even more significant is the fact that during the extensive betting that goes on nationwide before the Derby, the choice of British housewives was, above all, Steve Cauthen.
Which is, as a measure of popularity, more dependable than any opinion poll ever devised. Twice a year the most respectable ladies in Britain permit themselves to enter the betting shops, to wager on the Derby and that other great racing event, the Grand National steeplechase. It has to be confessed that sentiment often sways their choice.