The kid America called The Kid back when he set a world record by winning more than $6 million in purses in one year (1977) and the Triple Crown aboard Affirmed the next is a man of 23 now. Oh, Steve Cauthen is a bit taller and slightly heavier, but his brown eyes still light up with mischief even as his quick mind assesses the two distant racing worlds he will compete in during 1984. From now until the end of February he will be riding in California against the all-star colony of jockeys assembled under the palm trees at Santa Anita; then he will move back to his home base in England, where he is expected to launch a major assault on both the race-winning and money-winning titles of that country. Should Cauthen become the first American to bring that off, either he'll be cast in bronze and readied for shipment to racing's Hall of Fame or he'll be appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James's. Maybe both.
It went virtually unnoticed in the U.S. that Cauthen was named England's Jockey of the Year for 1983, a remarkable achievement for a Yank horsebacking against the likes of Lester Piggott, Willie Carson and Pat Eddery, legends of the British turf. Last year Cauthen won 105 races abroad, including six Group I races, and $1.7 million in purses, impressive figures in Europe. His two-month stay in California will help prepare him for his run at the English jockey titles, beginning in late March, when the English season opens.
One afternoon last week Cauthen sat at a table in the jockey's room at Santa Anita, his large, sensitive hands rapidly shuffling a deck of cards. Cauthen is the young master of Racehorse Rummy, which riders play between mounts, and he was trying to get a game going in a room filled with wary opponents. "In '83 I had the best year of the five I've been riding in England," he said as he waited for the fish to bite. "Somebody figured out that if a punter had bet one pound on all of my English mounts last year, he would have won 200 pounds. That means that I rode a lot of long shots that won. This year I think I have a very good chance to be the leading rider. I hope to keep right on winning, but not riding as many long shots. My basic contract in England is with trainer Barry Hills, but in '83 I rode some 60 winners for outside owners."
When Cauthen went to England in 1979 a lot of people thought it was a mistake. The adjustment, they said, would be too difficult. There are more than 50 tracks in England, and they vary a great deal. Many roll up and downhill, and some have odd turns and unusually long straightaways. "I had to adapt my style more to the European way of riding," said Cauthen. "At most European tracks the horses come to the finish line running uphill, so stamina is important and rating your horse is critical."
Cauthen's arrival in England was a hot news story, and his every move was tracked by the British press, which labeled him Stevie Wonder and the Bionic Booter. Some athletes endure pressure, others soar above it. Cauthen soars. In 1977, for example, he took a horrible spill at Belmont Park and his return to competition was regarded in some quarters with doubt. Could the 16-year-old come back after such a fall and not be afraid? On his return, Cauthen won with his first mount, a horse named Little Miracle. When he was about to lose his five-pound apprentice allowance in 1977, some wondered if he could make the transition to journeyman. On his first day after he lost his "bug" he won with his first three mounts. Cauthen has had other memorable firsts: He won the first stakes race he appeared in at Santa Anita, and he also won the first Kentucky Derby he ever rode in.
His very first ride abroad was no different. He won with his first mount at Salisbury, then later won the classic Two Thousand Guineas on a 20-1 shot, Tap On Wood. Cauthen finished 1979, his first year in England, with 72 winners.
Carson, the clever Scotsman who finished first in the 1983 jockey standings, said to Cauthen not long after his arrival, "Steve, you can follow me wherever you want—as long as you keep following me." That first year Cauthen was surrounded by what he called "a lot of razzmatazz, and maybe it hurt me a bit." When it was reported he had been seen dancing all night in a top hat, he took care of the rumor very quickly. "Couldn't of been me," he said, "don't own a topper." In 1979 at Doncaster, he rode the 1,000th winner of his short career on a horse named Thousandfold.
Santa Anita-based trainer John Russell, a man who knows European racing well, says, "The English people I've talked to say Steve Cauthen will be the next Lester Piggott. I saw Steve ride last year at Newmarket, and he was brilliant. Being the next Piggott is no small thing." Ed Gregson, the trainer of 1982 Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol, says, "You have to love him, because he figured the game out over here, then figured it out over there. Hard to do."
Some may find it remarkable that Cauthen has chosen to return to Santa Anita, the track where, in 1979, he lost 110 races in a row, the most famous losing streak in racing history. That winter everything went wrong for him. He had gone to California to stay with Affirmed and ride for trainer Laz Barrera. After losing two starts on Affirmed while mired in his slump, Cauthen was taken off him. Thereupon Laffit Pincay Jr. rode Affirmed to seven straight wins. At the end of '79, Cauthen's Santa Anita statistics were horrendous: 10 winners in 262 starts for a percentage of 3.8.
"Something like that will teach you humility in a hurry," Cauthen says. "It was beyond the worst of my nightmares."