Words, to Steve Cauthen, are like extra weight—always best kept to a minimum. So, when the willowy racing wunderkind, still in the throes of the first desperate slump of his career, arrived back at Santa Anita Park from a fishing trip recently, no one was surprised by his reticence.
Where did you go? he was asked.
What did you catch?
Suddenly, the poker-faced reserve melted away. “I didn’t even think about all that stewing that was going on back here,” he confided with just the trace of a smile. “I loved it there. When you’re going good, you’ve got time to relax. But when things aren’t right, you’re always concentrating to figure out what’s going wrong. You really don’t appreciate anyone who tries to stop you from that concentrating.”
Clearly, the 18-year-old jockey was already being hounded by distractions enough. In little more than two years as a professional rider, he had won more than 900 races, including the Triple Crown last spring on Affirmed. Then the music stopped. After riding two winners on New Year’s Day at Santa Anita, Cauthen started 110 races without winning another. Some track watchers thought he wasn’t showing the same verve after a spill last summer in which he injured his knee. Others said he had discovered the opposite sex. He had, but the discovery hadn’t scrambled his priorities. “I like these California girls,” he said. “You treat them nice and have a good time for a few days, but then they leave you alone. They don’t try to interfere with your business.”
A likelier explanation was suggested by Cauthen’s new agent, Harry “The Hat” Hacek. In New York, where Steve first began winning, said The Hat, he often had three mounts in each race to choose from, “and in a seven-horse field that’s a helluva edge.” In California Cauthen was breaking into a lineup of the country’s best jockeys, and the good mounts were frequently not his. “It’s unreal the calls I got,” said Hacek. “People wanted to hypnotize Steve, pray for him. But he wasn’t worried. I couldn’t detect any difference in him.” Cauthen, of course, was living with the difference each day. Finally, on February 1, a full month after his last victory, he won on a 5-to-2 shot named Father Duffy. “The race went perfectly for us,” Steve explained afterward, in what for him was a garrulous outburst. “I’d ridden the horse before and I knew he was kind of lazy, so I kept after him all during the race. There was only one time before today when I raised my whip over my head at the finish, and that was after Affirmed won the Triple Crown. It was that kind of feeling.”