Few athletes, human or equine, ever burst onto the national scene as quickly as Steve Cauthen.
In 1977, one year after he began riding, he paced all jockeys with 487 victories and emerged as the first to earn as much as $6 million in purses in a single season. In 1978, “The Kid” gained the distinction of being the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown as his precocious talent helped Affirmed repel Alydar in one of the fiercest rivalries any sport has known.
The cover of Time magazine depicted the fresh-faced Cauthen with a victory cigar beneath a bold headline that read: “A Born Winner.”
There is plenty of truth to that in detailing a career that made Cauthen an international legend. He gives much of the credit to his father, Tex, a trainer and farrier who taught him about the curious ways of Thoroughbreds from the ground up.
The native of Walton, Ky., said he merely needed to look into his father’s eyes to be filled with confidence, no matter his youth and inexperience. “In my heart, I felt I could do it,” he said.
Another important voice belonged to Jackie Flinchem, a former rider who became a trainer. He helped the teenager to develop great hands, hands that could give half-ton Thoroughbreds the confidence to bull through narrow openings and to overcome all kinds of adversity during the running of a race.
“I felt I could get horses to respond to me the way I wanted them to instead of trying to force them to do things,” Cauthen said.
He was such a wunderkind that his second season brought accolades as Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, Sporting News Sportsman of the Year, Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year and ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year. In an unusual twist, he won two Eclipse Awards for his riding ability: as outstanding apprentice and outstanding jockey.
It all happened so fast. How did Cauthen keep his early success from being too much too soon?
“My dad and my family, the people around me, didn’t let it get out of control,” he said. “They would say, ‘You’re doing great, but you are still a 17-year-old kid.’ They were good at helping me keep my feet on the ground.”
As he grew to manhood, he moved to England in 1979 so he could compete at a higher weight. He was the champion jockey there three times and won 10 English classic races, including the 2,000 Guineas, the Epsom Derby twice and the St. Leger Stakes three times. He later returned to his home state and oversees a small breeding operation near Verona, Ky., that features six broodmares.
He and his wife, Amy, have three daughters. And he has memories that are so vivid, the most special one being Affirmed’s unforgettable duel with Alydar in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes to establish himself as the last Triple Crown winner.
“Coming down the stretch with a chance to win the Triple Crown and pulling it off in such a great race,” Cauthen said, “I don’t think it gets any better than that.”
- Mother, Myra, first photographed him on a horse when he was 1.
- Rode first race at Churchill Downs on May 12, 1976, finishing last aboard King of Swat
- First winner, Red Pipe, came at River Downs within initial week of riding
- Made record album in 1970’s entitled “and Steve Cauthen sings, too.”
- Had autobiography written at age 18 and was the subject of four children’s books