Steve Cauthen speaks with a British accent now.
And that is the least of the changes the boy from Walton, Ky., has undergone since he left Santa Anita in 1979 to start a new career as a jockey in Europe.
Then he was beleaguered, perplexed, mired in the most talked-about losing streak in the history of American racing. But when he returned here last week to ride a few races and get in shape for the upcoming English season, he was confident and self-assured, a proved success in his adopted country. And he has the perspective to realize he owes this success in part to the travails he endured the last time he was here.
Cauthen was America's darling when he came West at the outset of 1979. He had burst spectacularly onto the racing scene in New York, winning races with such frequency that the most cynical racetrackers thought he possessed special magic. When he won the Triple Crown aboard Affirmed he was celebrated as no other jockey in this country has ever been.
Then he came to Santa Anita--and proceeded to lose 110 consecutive races. His agent wasn't getting him good mounts. He wasn't adjusting properly to the aggressive, speed-oriented California riding style. His confidence started to ebb. The locals nicknamed him "Dr. Death."
"At the time it was very hard for me to understand," Cauthen said. "I wasn't in my home territory and things weren't going right. But now I think that experience probably taught me a lot. It probably improved my character, and it taught me some humility. You have to take the bad with the good in your life and your career, and the only way to get through times like that is to face them. And I realized that I was still better off than people who suffer tragedies that are a lot worse than losing 110 races in a row."
Cauthen's dismal performance at Santa Anita may have been a blessing in disguise, for it gave him the impetus to accept an offer to ride for prominent owner Robert Sangster in England. The fans and the press warmed immediately to the boyish charm that had made him a media celebrity here. And Cauthen showed them that he was a talented rider. Having always relied more on intelligence and finesse than raw strength and aggressiveness, he probably was better suited to English racing than to American racing anyway. He adapted easily to the very different nature of the sport in England.
"The main difference is the pace," Cauthen said. "There you have to save your horse for the finish--and the reason is the tracks. They're not flat like the ones in this country. Most of them are uphill at the finish, and it's a heck of a lot harder for a horse. It takes a lot more stamina to finish. But you can still steal a race occasionally (by taking the lead and setting a moderate pace). They train horses here to relax when they're behind other horses, and most of them won't relax when they're on the lead. But with the right type of horse you can do it."
Using a blend of American and European techniques, Cauthen has become one of the most successful jockeys in England. He was the third-leading jockey in the country last season, and as the regular rider for trainer Barry Hills' strong 120-horse stable he is almost assured of future success. On his visit here he has been constantly asked whether he will ride regularly in his native country again, but Cauthen will only say, "At the moment I'm quite happy."
He is especially happy to leave the memories of the 1979 season at Santa Anita an ocean away.