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Sport: King of the ‘Bug Boys’

3 minute read

Oliver was formally apprenticed. It was a nice sickly season just at this time … and, in the course of a few weeks, Ol-iver acquired a great deal of experience.

—Charles Dickens

Beset by some of the worst weather in decades, winter racing in New York would be a sickly season indeed were it not for a new twist: the emergence of Steve Cauthen. An apprentice jockey since his 16th birthday last May, Cauthen has won 276 races and more than $1.6 million in purses since riding his first professional mount. That nag, King of Swat, was a 136-to-l long shot, and finished as the odds had him—dead last —but Cauthen has been winning ever since. He stands a good chance this year of building the most successful season a “bug boy” (apprentice) has ever known.

In six days, he rode 23 winners at Aqueduct Race Track, breaking Angel Cordero’s New York State record of 22 victories for the same period, set two years ago. Standing small (5 ft. 1 in., 95 Ibs.) beside the thoroughbreds, his Dickensian face pale amid the splashing silks of his trade, Cauthen has captivated bettors and won the admiration of trainers and jockeys. Onetime Jockey Sammy Renick watched the young Kentuckian ride, and came away impressed. Says Renick: “He has great hands. Horses settle in and run kindly for him. Few jockeys have this touch. Steve hits the horse at the right time, which is a feel, a gift he has.”

Whipping Hay. Cauthen was only two when his father Ronald, a blacksmith at tracks in Kentucky and Ohio, first put him on a pony. With a trainer/owner mother, Cauthen grew up on the backstretch, attending his first Kentucky Derby at the same age colts do —as a three-year-old. By the time he was twelve, he was perched beside the starting gates, studying how jockeys get away on the break. After he decided to become a rider, Steve and his father collected race films, endlessly rerunning them on a borrowed projector, to dissect the strategies of dozens of jockeys. Says Steve: “I give my father credit for everything I have learned. The basic things came from him: how to get a good seat and hands, pace, how to switch the stick in one stride.” While dismounted, he practiced his whip technique by flailing a bale of hay.

Both Cauthens agreed that balance and the lowest possible wind resistance are the keys to a good seat. Today Steve rides so low and so level that other jockeys, looking back, sometimes think he has fallen off; they are often unable to see him crouched behind his horse’s head. Father and son also agreed on what would happen if Steve suddenly grew beyond jockey size. Says Ronald Cauthen: “He was to get an education, and if he had to reduce to ride, he would not ride. I knew of too many jockeys who starved themselves to death to keep their weight down.”

Between workouts, Steve Cauthen spends his time reading correspondence-course history textbooks and the Racing Form. Meanwhile, he can afford to eat well—his share of the purses totals more than $160,000—and does. There is no need to reduce when he is still 15 Ibs. away from mornings in the “sweat box,” and has the additional benefit of his apprentice’s 5-lb. allowance. When that advantage is removed in May, however, no one expects Cauthen to lose his winning ways. Says Jockey Mary Bacon: “If he keeps running true to form, he’s going to outdo God.”

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