Steve Cauthen: Reminiscences of the Kentucky Kid

Steve Cauthen: “If I was ever nervous in my whole life, it was kind of leading up to the Belmont.” Photo:

The great Steve Cauthen was a winner again this month, this time as an owner (co-owner to be precise) when Palace Avenger won an allowance race on the opening day at Saratoga on July 16. The filly is trained by Wesley Ward, another American noted for his success across the Atlantic, and their collaboration was the subject of considerable media interest after the victory. Cauthen spoke to Patrick Lawrence Gilligan to mark his 60th birthday in May. Here we reproduce that interview.


I have been in Kentucky for six years now. I know the Kentucky accent. It can be slightly whiny, drawn out, at times even a little irritating. Steve Cauthen was born and raised in Kentucky, but, when he speaks, it’s a voice that makes people take notice. It was always like that. I sat down with him recently and listened to him talk.

“My dad was born in Texas, a little town called Muleshoe. He carried a pistol to school. That’s how it was back then in Texas. He left to go to the racetrack at 16. He was a groom, exercise rider, he trained some, then at some point he went to blacksmith school and became a farrier.”

Cauthen’s family on his maternal side had a successful butter-producing company and owned racehorses. His first winner was trained by his mother’s brother.

“I loved sports, loved football. When I was ten or 11, I wanted to be a quarterback, but then all my buddies grew up and I didn’t. Then I read a book, I Ride to Win by Eddie Arcaro, and that piqued my interest.”

Cauthen had been riding since the age of two, so he approached his father and told him he would like to try to become a jockey. Instead of clipping him around the ear like a good father would, Tex said sure, that he would help him in any way he could.

From the age of 15, Cauthen was sneaked onto the backstretch at River Downs racetrack in Ohio to exercise horses and, as soon as he turned 16, he approached the senior steward to ask to take out his jockey’s license. “I looked about ten and was skinny as a rake. He said, ‘I think we need to think about this.’” 

After being vouched for by other racetrackers, Cauthen’s license was obtained, and it wasn’t long before he donned silks. His first ride finished just about last, and he rode a few more slow ones before he rode that first winner for his uncle. He rode another the next day, for his mother on a horse raised at the family farm. 

Cauthen won three races on the bounce, and he was off. He ended up riding over a hundred winners at River Downs over the next couple of months.

“Then I went to Chicago, to Arlington Park. They were already halfway through the meet, but I finished runner-up in the standings there.” The young kid from Kentucky managed to rack up 240 winners in 1976, the first year he rode races.

‘I’d never accelerated that much on a horse before’

He was just getting going, though. He was in New York for the winter and had top agent Lenny Goodman now. He was unstoppable. 

No one had ever seen anything like it. 

In 1977, Steve Cauthen rode over 2,000 races and won 487 of them. His mounts earned over $6 million that year, which netted the 17-year-old somewhere around $600,ooo before deductions. The median price of a home in Kentucky at that time was a little under $60,000.

Cauthen was champion apprentice in 1977, and also champion jockey, and he won the Eclipse award of merit for the person who did the most for horseracing that year.

Perhaps the most important thing that happened that year, though, was Cauthen picking up a spare mount in a 2-year-old stakes at Saratoga on a horse called Affirmed. He won that race, and then followed up in the Hopewell Stakes against his soon-to-be-famous adversary, Alydar.  

“That was the day I knew he was the real deal. I’d never accelerated that much on any horse before. They ran all the way from the quarter pole to the wire.” The score stood Alydar one, Affirmed two. Perhaps the greatest series of duels in modern racing history was heating up.

“Then we won the Futurity, and then Alydar beat me in the Champagne Stakes [at Belmont Park]. It was a muddy track and Alydar came wide, Affirmed was never that comfortable on an off track.”

The following year Affirmed and Cauthen won the Santa Anita Derby and the Hollywood Derby in California, and then they headed back to Kentucky, to Run for the Roses, to go head to head with Alydar once again.

I asked him how he had felt. Had he been nervous - riding a big mount in the biggest race in North America. “Hey, I was just happy to have my first ride in a classic race. I was excited, nervous, not worried about it.”

Affirmed broke well, Alydar didn’t. Cauthen found a spot on the outside in third, Alydar was wide and out of his ground. When Steve Cauthen unleashed Affirmed at the top of the stretch, it was as good as over. Alydar closed, he tried, but he couldn’t make up all that ground. The kid won the Kentucky Derby on Affirmed. The horse stood in the winner’s enclosure with the young rider in pink and black silks, and a blanket of red roses was laid across them. Alydar was second.

‘I didn’t want to be the reason it got screwed up’

The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Maryland falls exactly two weeks after the Kentucky Derby. Affirmed was there. So was Alydar. The result was the same, Affirmed first, but only by a neck this time, and a lot of people thought the mile and a half at Belmont Park would suit Alydar better. He had already beaten Affirmed twice at Belmont Park. The bettors made him favorite to do it again.

“Now that was a long three weeks leading up to the Belmont. If I was ever nervous in my whole life it was kind of leading up to the Belmont because I knew I had a chance to do something really special and was young and I didn’t want to be the reason it got screwed up.”

Affirmed cruised to an easy lead in the Belmont. A half-mile in 50 was slow for horses of their calibre. Jorge Velasquez on Alydar decided to duel, to lay it down to Affirmed, to make his lungs burn, to test his stamina, to test his heart.

They joined together, eyeball to eyeball, still threequarters of a mile from the winning post. The pair went clear. It was just them, Affirmed on the inner, Alydar laying down on him. They jousted down the stretch, and Alydar got a head up. And Cauthen switched his stick and asked Affirmed for more. He fought back, closed inch by inch, both riders reaching deep into their horses’ souls. Both horses fought, and they flashed by the wire together. And 18-year-old Steve Cauthen and 3-year-old Affirmed had won the Triple Crown.


He was famous across North America now, Cauthen, the winner of one of the greatest duels in the sport, winner of the Triple Crown. He was featured in Sports Illustrated, more than a jockey, a face of the times, featured on the cover of Time magazine, named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year – the only jockey ever to win the accolade. All against the backdrop of flared jeans and the Bee Gees. It seemed too good to be true. And it was.

An injury ruled him off Affirmed in the Travers. The horse still passed the post in front but was disqualified for interference, handing the win to Alydar. 

When Cauthen retook the mount, they got beaten a few races in succession. People murmured about Cauthen’s fitness, whether his injury was still bothering him. He didn’t think it did, but that didn’t stop them taking him off his horse. The horse he won the Triple Crown on was no longer his to ride.

Cauthen was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1978

And then people decided the kid had forgotten how to ride. He was out in California, and a quiet spell turned into a drought. “The press wrote each day how long it had been since my last winner and how many mounts.”

That was an asinine thing to do to the teenager, still not even old enough yet to buy a brew to wash the bad taste out of his mouth. They say the higher you climb, the farther you fall. Well Steve Cauthen was tumbling from the stars. And it stung. Of course it stung. 

But then came a racehorse owner from England, the champion racehorse owner in England. He had noted the young man, was impressed by his politeness when he came across him in California once. He got bloodstock agent Billy McDonald to ask the kid who had grown from five foot one to five foot six by now, and was filling his frame, whether he might consider Europe.

‘Barry Hills reignited my desire to be on top again’

The young rider demurred at first, so Robert Sangster paid him a visit. He sat with Steve and Tex, convinced them that, with his height, he would have to head there sometime for the higher weights, so why not now? Tex gave his blessing, and the Kentucky Kid packed his bags and got on a plane and left everything he had achieved behind.

“I flew into Ireland, and then they snuck me over to Blackbushe airport in Camberley, Surrey, so nobody would know I was coming in. So, I meet [trainer] Barry [Hills] with his car, and I say ‘Hi Barry, nice to meet you, shall I put my case in your trunk? And he says, ‘It’s called an f-ing boot here.’”

And the young man suddenly realized his home state of old-fashioned southern manners was now far behind him.

I asked him what he remembers of those first days in England. “I remember riding two miles to the gallop and four miles home in the rain and wind and cold,” he smiles.

“Barry and Penny were great. They put me up in their house until I eventually got my own place. They became like parents to me and treated me like family from the beginning. Barry was a big influence on me. He reignited my desire to be on top again.”

Cauthen won on his first mount in the UK - for Barry Hills - and he was just as instantly successful at disarming the British press - in fact, pretty much the whole racing community. He had immaculate manners, a complete lack of self-importance, and level-headed openness and honesty. He was so honest in fact that, when a trainer one day instructed him to ride his horse like a non-trier, he had to ask what a non-trier was.

‘I wanted my dad to come over. I thought we could win the Derby’

Just a month after meeting Barry Hills, the pair of them won the 2000 Guineas with Tap On Wood. “I think I won about six Group races in the first six weeks we were there, and then the horses got sick. That’s when I learned to play golf. I ended up having about 50-odd winners that season.”

“I loved being with Barry and Penny. He was a very good trainer, a self-made man, and maybe he didn’t get all the credit he deserved.” 

They went racing together. Cauthen recalls a hairy drive to Nottingham one day, when they entrusted him to drive their big new Mercedes. They were together for six years, but then Henry Cecil made him an offer. One his head had to accept, although with some sadness as it meant his time with Hills was to end.

Slip Anchor was there, that first year. “After he won the Lingfield Derby [Trial], I called my dad and said I wanted him to come over. I thought we could win the Derby.”  

He did win the Epsom Derby on Slip Anchor, seven years after winning the Kentucky one, still the only man to do so. Then a few days later he won the Oaks on Oh So Sharp.

He says without hesitation that Oh So Sharp was the best he rode in Europe. She became his second Triple Crown winner. They won four of the five English Classics, the first year Cecil and Cauthen teamed up.


I asked him what he made of Newmarket when he first got there. “It was cool, but it got me drinking … by the end of the year I was in a drying out joint,” he says chuckling (he is teetotal now).

I asked him who he thought were the best, toughest competitors on either side of the Atlantic. “Angel Cordero in the States was tough, always looking for a way to get your horse beat.” And in Europe he mentioned Lester Piggott of course, and also Pat Eddery. “Pat was a natural. He couldn’t tell you how he did it, but he just knew how to do it.”

He spent six years with Cecil, “I loved riding for Henry. He was eccentric for sure, but there was something about him. He was special.” They were both special, and they were special years, Cecil in his prime, a glamorous pairing, picking up prestige races all over the place.There was another Derby with Reference Point. And Cauthen won the Irish, French and Italian Derbys too.

And then in 1990 Sheikh Mohammed made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He won two G1s for Andre Fabre in France, including one on Rose Finch, a daughter of Oh So Sharp, during his two years with the Sheikh.

Retirement - aged just 32

He climbed the two tallest mountains in the sport, Steve Cauthen.  He stood on those peaks, breathed in the air and took in the view. And then, at the age of 32, he decided to stop climbing. He stopped racing horses for fortune and fame, laid down his champagne glass, and he took his young wife, Amy, carrying the first of their three daughters, and returned to Kentucky – the ‘land of meadows’ in the Iroquois language.

Kentucky is a beautiful state, with four beautiful seasons, and Cauthen raised his family there on his farm. He raised horses too, he still does, and he owns some and manages some. He is laid back and friendly, living here in this laid back and friendly state. 

Cauthen would have made a lot of money riding horses, but money can be made in many ways. When he sits at home in his armchair, though, and rests his head back and closes his eyes, he can be behind Affirmed’s ears once again, thundering down the stretch, under the Twin Spires, reaching for the wire in the 104th Kentucky Derby. Or he can have Oh So Sharp, in his hands, cruising around Tattenham Corner, before unleashing her in the Oaks.

Before he left, he said he wanted to ask me a favour. “I’d like it if you could say something nice about Barry, Penny, and Pat. I thought very highly of them, I thought they were all great.”

They were great, Barry Hills with his cigars, Pat Eddery with his large blue eyes. Icons of the turf in golden days. But even they couldn’t outdo the kid when he came to town. 

This article originally appeared in the Racing Post.

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