The signs are finished and will be in place before Saturday, the day the young man who put this little northern Kentucky town on the may rides Affirmed in THE Derby.
"We're making three. They're four foot by six foot. And they're gonna say, "Home Town of Steve Cauthen," George Ryan said. "There's a likeness of Steve on the signs. The artist has them done. I'm responsible for erecting one on Rte. 16, the road that comes in from Interstate 75."
Ryan runs the hardware store in "downtown" Walton and a tractor implement business a few blocks from Walton-Verona High School. He appears to be Stevie Wonder's biggest hometown booster. The signs, for example, are Walton's first official recognition of Cauthen's overnight stardom as a jockey. And Ryan is preparing another momument of sorts in the rider's honor, "Steve's Pub," at 11 Main.
The Pub is being remodeled and will not be finished by Saturday but a party is planned there to celebrate Cauthen's and Affirmed's victory over Alydar, Sensitive Prince, Believe It and nation's other top 3-year-olds in the Kentucky Derby. Much of Walton's 2,000 population will observe the occasion at home, however.
"I'm afraid that Walton - even though there's a percentage that's extremely enthusiastic, because of his accomplishments - there are too many in my judgement, who really take it passe," Ryan said. "They don't seem to think about what he's achieved, the $6 million his horses earned, his being sport's Man of the Year at 17. Maybe that's better, though. Maybe, if they did, it would give Steve a big head, if we all got too enthusiastic."
The residents of Walton (zip code 41094) obviously do not become excited easily. This is a blue-collar and farming area. There is an industrial park in nearby Florence where there's a sheet-metal and other light manufacturing plants. There's a steel mill in Newport.
Cincinnati is 25 miles to the north, up Rte. 75. Lexington's Blue Grass country is 60 miles to the south, down the same road. Cauthen's grandfather once started a horse farm near Richmond, right next door. But a visitor gets the feeling that nothing changes very rapidly in Walton, where there seems to be a church in every other block, where city hall shares the same building with the fire truck and where a railroad track cuts smack across Route 25, Main Street.
The side streets don't run deep, except maybe for the one leading to the high school, where Reed Tyler, the assistant principal, meets the out-of-town media.
"A leg man for Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner was here the other day," Tyler noted. "People come here asking about Steve.They come and they go. I took this particular fella to Betty Jones, Steve's English teacher. She told how he got 95, 96 in the school's English program; that he had very good command of himself and his subject, that he had poise, even then, but that he, really, was just like 95 percent of all our students. You didn't particularly notice him.
"In athletics, for instance, the only thing to particularly interest him was the trampoline, the acrobatics," Tyler continued. "But I think his parents knew, early, he was going to be a jockey. I remember they'd come with Steve to see Doug, one of his two brothers, play on my knothole baseball team. They'd come from River Downs or Latonia, where they'd been with their horses, and Steve was always with them."
Tex Cauthen, Steve's father, is a blacksmith. His mother trains thoroughbreds.
"That explained something for me, because there'd never been any direct effort by his parents to involve him in any extra-curricular activities, like with the other boys (Doug and Cary)," Tyler said. "I think they must have known Steve was going to be a jockey from the time he was 8 to 10."
Tyler's observation surprised Ryan.
"I had him in the 4-H, riding horses, western style, when he was 9 to 13," the hardware man said, "and there never was a tipoff he had any special ability, and I saw him riding a lot because my children were involved in it, too."
The Cauthens have lived in Walton for 15 years. "They're at the south end as you leave town," Tyler directed.
Steve's success has not spoiled the family image.
"They've handled it so well, all of them," Tyler observed. "They've handled it in very good style and very good taste.
"They're very down-to-earth; always have been," Ryan echoed. "The parents have always been that way, and so are their boys. Steve's never been a person to brag. He came home last Christmas, before going to California to ride, after all his publicity in New York, and he hadn't changed."
The best athlete to grow up in Walton, before Cauthen, was Frenchy Demossiey, who went to UK and became an All-America basketball player in the 1930s. Waltonians knew about Demossiey's talent before he left school. Cauthen took them by surprise.
"We were unaware," Ryan admitted. "No one knew he had this talent. The parents really kept it under wraps."
"Absolutely," Tyler agreed. "When somebody says to me, what about Steve Cauthen, my reaction is, 'Who would have thought . . . and' so quickly. A boy like this. We didn't know about his ability with horses. None of us dreamed . . ."
Cauthen's class graduates from Walton-Verona this month.
"Steve's been taking correspondence, since he left two years ago, and he won't graduate with them, but we expect he will graduate within six months," Tyler said. "He was always a good student. It's just a matter of him finding time, with his schedule and all, to do the correspondence work."
Cauthen will celebrate his 18th birthday this week in New York. His schedule this week will find him at Churchill Downs later for the most famous horse race America offers. Affirmed last season's champion 2-year-old, will be either the favorite or a strong second choice to Alydar. Steve would not be the youngest Derby-winning jockey. Bill Boland was 16 when he scored with Middleground.
"There's no doubt he'd going to win," Ryan declared. "He has the talent and he has a good enough animal. The only way he'd lose is if something happened to the animal, or if the race, maybe, was run on an extremely muddy track. That might have an effect on him."
But what if he lost?
"We're not even thinking about that," Ryan replied. "I went to Ireland last year to see where my grandfather came from, from County Tipperary, and I saw the pubs there. That's when I decided to make one back home like them.
"I purchased the property here in order to salvage the retail package liquor license. The party that owned it had offered it for sale, and the licenses get moved out of town that way. I didn't want to see our community without that particular facility, so I bought it. I intended to tear it down and start a new building, but when I saw the condition of the typical pub in Ireland, the authenticity, I knew the old building here looked like the ones in Ireland, so I started to remodel it.
"We had a target date of St. Patrick's Day for the opening," Ryan added. "Then a target date of Derby Day, and it still isn't going to make it. Not really, but we're going to have a party, even in the unfinished Steve's Pub. Steve's parents said he'd enjoy his name on the place.
"I hope the place will be full. It's a pretty good-sized building, 46 by 65. We're going to set up three TVs . . . and celebrate."
So the pub is the place to be in Walton Saturday. As Tyler says, "It's the only thing we have in town to really call attention to him."