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Jenny Kellner is an award-winning journalist and educator who has written about horse racing for more than 20 years. She has been a media specialist with NYRA for the past four years.

The Kid likes “the kid”

Sunday, May 27, 2012

No matter what anyone says, 34 years does not seem like yesterday. Or last week, or last month, or last year. But it certainly does not seem like some 11,411 days have passed since little Steve Cauthen piloted Affirmed to become racing’s 11th and most recent Triple Crown champion.

Saturday, Cauthen was at Belmont Park to sign autographs alongside Alydar’s jockey, Jorge Velasquez. Despite the gray hair and the facial lines one might expect from a 52-year-old man, Cauthen did not seem that much different from the bird-beaked, solemn youngster who took the racing world by storm all those years ago.

He was just 17 years old when he first climbed aboard Affirmed one August morning at Saratoga Race Course. He had picked up the mount on the 2-year-old chestnut colt for the upcoming Grade 2 Sanford after Laffit Pincay, Jr. decided not to come in from California and Angel Cordero, Jr. opted to ride another horse. Before he rode Affirmed, Cauthen worked him once over the Oklahoma training track.

He wasn’t impressed.

“He was quite lazy,” recalled Cauthen. “He won the race easily enough, even though he hung a bit on the turn, and I thought he was a nice little horse. It wasn’t really until his next race, the [Grade 1 Hopeful] when he ran against Alydar that I realized that he was special, a really good horse.”

If Cauthen was fortunate to have landed on Affirmed, Affirmed was equally fortunate to have landed Cauthen. The baby-faced rider had captivated the nation with his youthful innocence as he rode a record 487 winners of more than $6 million in 1977 – breaking Cordero’s previous record by more than 30 percent – and by the spring of 1978, he was horse racing’s equivalent of a rock star. Already Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, Cauthen became a spokesman for American Express, cut an album, and was the subject of a best-selling biography entitled “The Kid.”

Among other things, he appeared in a Wheaties commercial after landing on the cereal box cover. If I recall correctly, the ad had him sitting on a horse, singing something like “Before I put the stirrups on my feeties, I get the eaties for my Wheaties.” (I am not making this up.)

Through it all, Cauthen remained as bland and impervious as a freshly laid egg to the hoopla. The night before the Derby, he slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of a hotel room crowded with relatives. Introduced on the Churchill Downs backstretch to sports analyst Jimmy “the Greek” Synder, Cauthen solemnly shook the oddsmaker’s hand and said, “Nice to meet you, Mr. Greek.” Absolutely nothing fazed him.

“He must have come from Mars, maybe on a flying sausage,” marveled Affirmed’s trainer, Laz Barrera.

It may have been Cauthen’s composure, more than anything else, that ultimately made the difference in the Belmont. With Velasquez and Alydar pasted to Affirmed’s right flank through the stretch, Cauthen never lost his cool as he was forced to switch to a left-handed whip for the first time – and many believe that gave Affirmed the final encouragement to hit the wire a head in front.

Since then, every time a horse heads into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown, Cauthen is asked if he thinks he can add the “Test of the Champion” to his victories in the Derby and Preakness. He’s been wrong more times than not, but this year, Cauthen really thinks it can happen, partly because he sees the same kind of fighting spirit in I’ll Have Another as he did in Affirmed, and partly because of his 25-year-old jockey, Mario Gutierrez, whom Cauthen calls “the kid.”

“He couldn’t have ridden the horse any better than he did in the Derby and the Preakness,” he said of Gutierrez. “He had him in a perfect spot both times. He was patient, didn’t get flustered, and made his move without a lot of fuss.”

Just like Cauthen himself.


Comments :

  • double-sword chick | June 06 2012 07:42 PM

    The reason horses don't win Triple Crowns anymore is b/c of men like D. Wayne Lukas, who trains & enters only DISTANCE horses as Belmont spoilers. I actually blame Lukas (and others of his ilk) for disappointing millions of Americans who positively YEARN for another horse hero like Seabiscuit, to uplift our national spirit in troubled times. Why has it been 34 years, really? Because of cheaters & crooks in a crooked business. Now. Also notice the way I'll Have Another was strangely prevented from wearing his harmless nasal flap this Saturday. If ANYTHING bad happens to that horse after the race, due to such an arbitrary ruling (no "drugs" involved in nasal strips, after all)--I would launch an aggressive investigation into ANIMAL CRUELTY. Think about it. Aren't they just piling on to that horse's trainer, by imposing a stiff penalty on him prior to the race, etc. etc.? Don't take it out on the horse, for God's sake. Let him wear the damn nasal strips!

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  • s straussner | June 02 2012 10:26 PM

    Great article Jenny! You are right. It doesn't seem like yesterday. But sure doesn't feel like 34 years ago either. Hope that I'll Have Another makes history.

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