Racing: Cauthen finds bluegrass is greener
Horse racing: The former champion jockey from Kentucky has no regrets about rejecting Britain and the bottle
Friday 06 November 1998
However, the one Kentuckian who is already there will not be at Churchill Downs for what is effectively horse racing's world championships. Steve Cauthen will be just an hour or so away, up state in bluegrass country at his small breeding ranch watching the trumpeted racing at home. America's greatest turf export will have his feet up in the company of his two small daughters and wife, Amy.
The simplistic image is to see Steve Cauthen as a melancholic figure, a jockey whom racing retired when his body could no longer take the shrivelling of dehydration as he fought a losing battle to keep his weight down: a man who suffered drink problems and was then rejected by the world's most powerful owner, Sheikh Mohammed.
However, this would be a misrepresentation of both Cauthen the person and Cauthen the jockey. These days he does not sit at his Verona Stud all day flipping through the pages of a yellowing scrap book. Neither does he yearn for the competitive days of jockeyship.
At 38, with retirement six years behind him, the American is more than satisfied just to have Katelyn and Carlie bouncing on his knee. Greyness may be appearing, and the hairy tide on the top of his head is beginning to retreat, but Cauthen has put on only just enough weight to fill out his frame to a natural level.
He looks good, feels similar and everything about him suggests he got out at the right time. It is not an eventuality that has befallen all Kentucky's heroes, especially the one from Louisville they called the "Lip".
"I feel very fulfilled about my career and I left no stone unturned except maybe that I didn't win a Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe," Cauthen says. "I did everything I wanted to do in the sport, even though I could probably have gone on if it hadn't been for my weight.
"And I feel like I rode 10 years longer than I would have done because I came to Europe. That actually extended my career."
It is easy to forget that Cauthen became a grizzled veteran early on, a man-boy with the birth certificate of a teenager and the racing record of a hardened professional. At the end of the 1977 season in the States they began to call the "Kid" alternatively the "Six Million Dollar Man" because of his mounts' earnings that year. He rode 487 winners.
The following season it was just three contests which counted when Affirmed became the 11th horse to complete the United States' Triple Crown. His jockey was the youngest to accomplish that feat.
Then, having cleaned up America's dirty old towns, Cauthen loosened his horses from the rail of one continent to conquer another. Robert Sangster hired the young gun and placed him under the stern stewardship of Barry Hills.
When his first ride, Marquee Universal, won at Salisbury in April, 1979, 14 seasons of great glory in Europe were underway. Four weeks later Cauthen won the 2,000 Guineas on Tap On Wood. "England is small, it's beautiful and the whole little place is just horse crazy," the young man said shortly after disembarkation.
Cauthen swept through the high points like an Andean condor. There were three jockeys' titles (and he became the first American-born champion of Britain since Danny Maher in 1913), a fillies' Triple Crown on Oh So Sharp and the Derbys of Slip Anchor and Reference Point.
It was at Epsom that Cauthen defined himself as the finest front-running jockey of his age, a legacy of timed work honed in his native land. They said he had a clock in his head. "If Steve sets off in front and you're behind you've got to be worried," Joe Mercer, a weighing-room colleague, once said.
Out of the saddle Cauthen mixed fluidly both socially and politically with the big players of the turf. He looked at home in tweeds with a shotgun unhinged over his forearm. In the Berkshire burr he developed Cauthen was once heard to state that he would leave the country should a chap called Neil Kinnock, who used to lead a party called Old Labour, ever get into power.
For all the successes though, for all the stage scenery of a perfect life, there was a price to pay. Cauthen was riding at about 8st 7lb when the scales arrow should have been pinging round to something nearer 10st. Each morning he would get up and, rather than feed his body, he would actually take from it in the sauna. Over the years, his spirit was eroded.
"It was a pretty constrained lifestyle," he says. "The owners always wanted to entertain you, invite you out, but while they were having caviare or foie gras, you'd be looking at this little piece of lettuce on the plate and wondering if you could eat it and still make the weight the next day. It was a tough regime to stick to, but when you're young and you're winning races it's easier to make the sacrifice. The older I got, the tougher it got."
And, after the champagne days, the champagne nights started to come. There was talk of the American's over-indulgence, then recourse to a clinic. Now, as he stops to smell the roses, Cauthen never samples other bouquets. "I don't plan on drinking ever again," he says. "I realised that I didn't have to drink. Even though I don't have to keep my weight down, drink is not a part of my life any more.
"In England, drinking seems to be a part of the lifestyle for a lot of people, just an aspect of what you do as part of business life. If you don't drink, it's considered much more of a stigma, that you're odd or something, than it does in the States. Stopping is a choice I made for life."
It was around this bad time that Cauthen began to settle down with the American lawyer, Amy Rothfuss. She became very popular with Pat Eddery, Willie Carson and the rest of the weighing room as it became apparent that her presence was convincing Cauthen that he should not be flogging his mounts and himself to death on the racecourse for the rest of his life.
"When I found my wife I realised there were many more things important to me than just riding," he says. "I began to put things in perspective and came to the conclusion there were other things than my riding life. Money and success are great but they're not everything. My children are very important to me and, if I was still riding, I'd be trailing round the country and not seeing very much of them."
Cauthen's motivation for hurting himself in pursuit of sporting enhancement was beginning to swirl away. Then, one day in 1992, Sheikh Mohammed helped make the decision that his jockey would have reached on his own one day.
The Sheikh instituted a pay review into Cauthen's reputed retainer of pounds 1m a season and he was not looking upwards. "I'd had a great retainer with Henry Cecil and an even better one with Sheikh Mohammed towards the end of my career, but eventually he, and the other Arab owners, realised they had all the best horses and so they didn't have to pay jockeys to ride," the American says. "The jockeys would come to them. It was the perfect time for me to bow out.
"I didn't hold it against Sheikh Mohammed because he was just doing business. We didn't part on bad terms at all and that means a lot to me."
If it was an inglorious end to a twinkling career, then professional parting was a sweet sorrow for Steve Cauthen. He returned to the Kentucky soil of his childhood with suggestions that he would swing on the veranda and contemplate his future.
As the days passed, though, and his belt moved a notch or two, Cauthen found a new contentment. He started to enjoy the simplicity of a steady home, a wife, and then, a family. He had money in the bank, a sprouting stud farm, television work and further employment at the nearby Turfway race-track.
People started ringing him from lands far away and asking how disappointed he was about an abbreviated career and the new spangle-free life. Steve Cauthen probably began to pull away the telephone from the side of his head and stare intently at the ear piece. These people, he must have thought, were mad.
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