Steve Cauthen, a country boy, came to New York for a taste of "the Big Apple" on the last day of November. He looked 12 but his apprentice license certified he was old enough, at 16, to be a jockey. Two months later he had won with 85 of 330 mounts at Aqueduct: sensational, by New York standards, even winter ones.
There are no .300 hitters among thoroughbred race-riders. Yet Cauthen keeps challenging that mark. He is instantly the most famous of "the (1,600) Waltons "from his home town in Kentucky. He is the most publicized sports personality in this Megalopolis of 12,000,000. He is:
"The best young rider since (Bill) Shoemaker (in 1949)," many experts contend.
"A platinum property," the agents agree.
"Steve Wonder," the bettors shout when he wins. What the betters cry when he loses, on a 3-to-5 favorite, is too harsh for the teen-aged ears.
By any criteria Cauthen, at 5-foot-1, 95 pounds, has made it big in a hurry.
It was not until Thursday, however, that the boy from cowlick country really "arrived." That was the afternoon he and agent Lenny Goodman decided too much was too much. "They're driving me nuts," Cauthen declared in the middle of an Oh-for-seven cold streak, referring to the media's over-exposure. "I don't have time to think between races."
So Cauthen, at 16, became unavailable for interviews during the afternoono racing program, thereby establishing some sort of a record for joining the jockey's room at the top.
There are observers, according, who might submit that young Mr. Cauthen quickly became too big for his riding britches.
"I know the publicity is good for the race track, and it certainly hasn't hurt me," Cauthen said. "But the reason people are interested is me is not for what's being written about me; it's because I've been winning races.
"The other day a headline said 'Cauthen Wins Only Three.' I quess some of them expect me to win six every day, like I did that one day. Which is my only complaint.Some of the people who interview me don't seem to know much about racing."
Harper's, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and two television crews paid their respects to Cauthen within six hours recently. "We haven't seen anything like this since Secietariat and Canonero," acknowledged Sam Kanchuger, the head of press relations for the New York Racing Association. "And the kid's been great. He's still available to the media in the mornings at Belmont Park or when he first gets here in late morning. He's just asking for some time for himself between races."
Cauthen is holding up nicely under the strain. On track, he's doing even better.
Apprentices come and go in this sport, often creating brief flurries of excitement before losing the five-pound "bug" (apprentice's weight advantage) that enabled them to compete favourable against the journeymen. Other teen-aged riders have enjoyed immediate success. Bill Boland, who won the 1950 Kentucky Derby on Middleground as an apprentice, is the most notable example. Boland was special, the heir apparent to Eddie Arcaro at one point. Cauthen, too, has brilliant promise.
"His getting five pounds from the established jockeys is an edge he doesn't need right now," not with the stock he's getting," says Jacinto Vasquez a member of The Establishment."He's cool; a cool cat. Naturally, he has ability, or he wouldn't be winning as often as he is. But Lenny is getting him on the best stock, and that's what winning races is all about."
Cauthen rides the favorite, or the second or third choice, more often than not.
"Six (rides) a day is light for me right now," the young jockey remarked. "Usually it's nine, the complete card. I wouldn't have it any other way, although it does make for a long day. I'm staying over at Belmont, which means I'm up at 6 and on the track most morning by 6:30. It's 9 before I'm through exercising horses some days. Then it's over to Aqueduct by 10:30, and 6 o'clock beofe I get back to Belmont. Then there's this correspondence course I'm taking for school work. I still need six credits to graduate. I try to get to sleep by 9."
Such a routine leaves little room for anything but horses, horses, horses. Girls, for now, are running out of the money.
"Horses have been pretty much my main interest since my dad put me up on a spotted brown and white pony when I was 2," Cauthen recalled. "I even remember riding a bale of hay, using a stick as a whip, when there were no horses around. Then, about 12, I decided what I wanted to be. A jockey."
Tex Cauthen, Steve's father, is a blacksmith on the Kentucky - Ohio circuit. His mother Myra, is a licensed owner-trainer. Two uncles are trainers.
"My Dad would get films of races and we'd study them together," Cauthen adds. "Then, finally, when I became 16 last May 1, I could become an apprentice."
His first mount was King Of Swat, a 136-to-1 shot, May 12. He won his first race May 27. This means Cauthen has until May 27, 1977, to continue as an apprentice. He is confident that by then, he will be able to make a living here competing without the bug against the nation's finest jockeys.
"I was the person who decided the time was right for me to come to New York," Cauthen says. "I'd ridden in Ohio and in Illinois and had won a lot of places and I'd gone around to the older jockeys and asked them what they thought, whether I should try New York. They said I'd be crazy not to go, that I was the best young rider they'd seen.
"Don Brumfield, in particular, encouraged me. He said I was the best to come along in a long, long time. That helped my confidence. So I decided I should come here while I still had the five-pound allowance rather than later, when it would be more difficult to get started because there are so many good jockeys here."
Cauthen's critics, the few that exist, suggest he is reaping the benefits of a New York and national press at a time when New York racing is more like Bowie's. The competition, they point out, will be much tougher by spring.
"That's true, in terms of better horses," Cauthen admist, "the horses will be better. But I don't agree that the jockeys will be better. I'm up against (Jorge) Velasquez, Vasquez and (Eddie) Maple now. (Angel) Cordero just left on a little vacation. (Ron) Turcotte was here until a week ago. They're the heavyweights. They will still be the ones to beat, this spring."
Except that the veterans will be riding many of the favorites and the second and third choices then, when the leading New York stables return from winter quarters in the south. That's when Mac Miller will call on Velasquez, when Frank Whitley names Vasquez, when LeRoy Jolley teams with Maple and John Russell goes with Cordero.
Where will this leave Cauthen? Well most importantly, it probably will leave him with Goodman. The agent reportedly is cut in for 25 per cent of Cauthen's earnings, and he's worth every dollar. Goodman has booked riders for Braulio Baeza, Bill Hartack, Bob Ussery and Johnny Rotz, among others. Baeza has been his meal ticket, the last 12 years, but the Panamanian has a serious weight problem.
"I hope Baeza comes back. I believe he will. He's a great rider," Cauthen comments, "but I believe Lenny will still be my agent."
The odds are Cauthen is right in forecasting that aspect of his future. He figures to improve steadily, and with Goodman hustling mounts for him the young hardboot should have little difficulty sticking in New York. He represents, among other things, a "Great White Hope" to some segments of the racing fraternity who never been comfortable with the steady inflow of riding talent from Panama and other Latin countries over the last decade.
Cauthen's form is excellent. He rides low, his back straight, almost parallel to the ground, his butt down. He is strong, a strength attributable in part to high school wrestling. All the essentials are apparent. What becomes particularly significant during a brief chat with the 16-year-old is his exceptional poise and , in terms of the jockeys' room, his intelligence.
All of which is not to say Cauthen is a sure thing for thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs. There is no such thing this early in any rider's career.
Weight could be a problem for Cauthen by the time he is 18. He is smallboned but far from petite, like Shoemaker. Instant fame, with its instant riches, has ruined more than one brilliant apprentice. So have tall women.
It is a fast world Cauthen has entered. They won't be able to keep the blinkers on him forever.
"The real test, as to how he'll do, will come in May," Vasquez suggests, "when he is no longer an apprentice, when he does not get the top stock, when he starts losing.
"Every top jockey in this room has gone through much like what Cauthen's doing now, and it's pretty easy to keep your confidence when everything breaks right. It's when things start going wrong that you have to prove how good you are. That's when we'll see how he takes it. Will he change his attitude? Will he change the way he rides? That's when we'll see."