Little over a year ago he was "Stevie Wonder," the 16-year-old Cinderella kid of horse racing. Fresh from taking New York by storm, winning three Eclipse awards and setting an all-time record for purse earnings, he had come to California to seek the good life and the laurels that went with it.
Now, at 18, Steve Cauthen is the snake-bitten exwonder of Santa Anita. The laurels have turned into hemlock, the prince has become a frog. After 142 races this season at this tough, competitive Southern California racing showplace, Cauthen has only four winners. Today, his losing streak reached 105 consecutive mounts.
Cauthen has changed agents, testily rejected interviews, decided one day to abandon Los Angeles for New York and two days later to stay here. He seems confused and says he is "disgusted" with his showing. The boos of the crowd ring in his ears.
But in this winter of Cauthen's discontent, the prevailing view on the Santa Anita backstretch is that he is as good as he ever was and maybe even an improved jockey. The general opinion here when Cauthen was the toast of the nation was that he was not yet a finished rider, a contention seemingly supported by the number of stretch drives Cauthen lost to top rider Darrel McHargue or the veteran Bill Shoemaker, the all-time leading jockey.
"There's just no way he could have been as good as Shoe or Darrel or Laffit (Pincay) after only two years of racing," says a sympathetic trainer. "He was bult up so high he just had to come down."
And Cauthen has landed with a thud.He started to slump, almost unnoticed, late last summer in New York. By autumn he had dropped to the bottom of the Top 10 jockey standings.
Arriving in California for the start of the Santa Anita meeting the day after Christmas, Cauthen had only four winners the first week, two on New Year's Day. Bettors began to mumble when one favorite finished out of the money; the mumble became a chorus after heavily favored Affirmed was beaten in the Malibu Stakes on Jan. 7.
In that race Cauthen finished third aboard the 1978 horse of the year, and trainer Laz Barrera blamed Cauthen for letting Affirmed get in a box.
"Steve is going to have to smarten up out here in California if he's going to ride against the best riders," Barrera said afterward. "He shouldn't have left Affirmed fall back after a good start and let down inside horses in a slow race."
But Barrera's second-guessing seemed less impressive two weeks later when Cauthen was aboard Affirmed in the San Fernando Stakes. This time Cauthen gave his horse a ride that nobody faulted, yet Affirmed was decisively beaten by Radar Ahead. It is now clear to everyone at Santa Anita that Affirmed as a 4-year-old is not dominating horses the way he did at 3.
There are two generally accepted reasons for the decline in Cauthen's dominance.
The first, and most important, is live mounts. It is an axiom that he simply has not been getting live mounts. It is an axiom of racing that, while an incompetent jockey can lose a race, even the best rider cannot win with a decidedly inferior horse. The commonly held view is that the horse is 90 percent -- which still makes the jockey a key factor in close races.
But few of Cauthen's races have been close. Before he returned to New York early this week, Cauthen's former agent Lenny Goodman readily acknowledged that he had failed to come up with top mounts for his one-time boy wonder.
An analysts through Friday's races showed, however, that Cauthen hasn't done well even aboard favorites. On 11 favored horses he won only once and placed twice. Favorites usually win slightly more than one-third of the races at Santa Anita.
On Friday, Cauthen changed agents for the second time in a week. Cauthen named Harry Hacek to handle his book, two days after Chic McClellan had replaced Goodman.
The other reason Cauthen has not been winning, and one reason he has not gotten good mounts, is the abundance of big-league jockeys at Santa Anita. Top trainers like Gary Jones call Cauthen "a great race rider" but point out he is competing with the best jockeys in the country -- McHargue, Shoemaker, Pincay, former national champion Chris McCarron from Maryland and Angel Cordero from New York.
Ernie Mason, a well known Southern California handicapper since the early days of Santa Anita, observed this week that Cordero also had his problems when he came here from New York. And Mason remembers that the great Eddie Arcaro once had a California losing streak of 56 horses at a time he was the nation's top rider.
To say that Cauthen is taking his decline in stride would be an exaggeration.
His close friend and tennis partner McCarron believes that Cauthen may by trying too hard, pressing. Cauthen has become ultrasensitive to the shouts of derision which now accompany him back to the tack room. He complains about reporters who once celebrated him and can't seem to understand why they want to write about him when everything is going wrong.
Nonetheless, Cauthe has convinced his fellow jockeys that he has the doggedness and the maturity to overcome his problems. They say Cauthen proved this when he refused to follow Goodman back to New York and retreat from what he considers the toughest racing competition, in favor of easier pickings elsewhere.
None of his peers at Santa Anita doubts Cauthen is a great rider. Most predict that he will get even better.
Before the year is out, the jockeys say, they may even be calling him Stevie Wonder again.