04/28/2011 1:08PM

Q&A: Steve Cauthen

Photo by Z
Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen (right), with brother Kerry, now runs a breeding operation in Kentucky.

The last jockey to sweep the Triple Crown, aboard Affirmed in 1978, Steve Cauthen now breeds racehorses on his Dreamfields farm in Verona, Ky.

Birthdate: May 1, 1960, in Covington, Ky.

Family: wife, Amy; daughters, Katelyn, Karlie, and Kelsey

Got into racing because. . . “I loved sports of all kinds. I wanted to be a quarterback for an NFL team. I was a big Johnny Unitas fan when he was in his prime. I played basketball, football, pee-wee league, all that jazz. The summer when I was 12, I realized I was not physically cut out for football. I realized I better start thinking of other things. Since I was small, I thought about maybe being a jockey, so I talked to my dad (Tex, a farrier). I used to spend summers holding horses for him. Once I decided on that, I poured all my energy into it.”

Can you believe no one else has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed? “I can believe it. Obviously, along the way there have been a lot of horses who looked like they could or should win it. It’s just so difficult to have a horse that’s good, overcomes many obstacles, and be that consistent, like Affirmed and Alydar were. Or you have to be a horse that’s that much better than his generation, like Seattle Slew. Along with Secretariat, that was a great era of great horses. They were special horses. Back in those days, horses would run 10 or 12 times as a 2-year-old. They were race-tough.”

What does that say about how hard it is to win the Triple Crown? “It’s probably one of the toughest things to do in sports. There’s so many variables. Think of all the little things that can go wrong. If you have a minor training setback, you have to have a horse that’s that good to overcome it. You need a little divine intervention. The biggest obstacle we had was a great horse to beat every time. Alydar was an exceptional horse. Luckily for us, there were no training setbacks other than a wet spring at Santa Anita. Affirmed could take training. And Laz Barrera was an excellent trainer. It was innate. He backed off when he needed to, and knew when to push.”

What does that say about how good a horse Affirmed was? “He won 14 Grade 1s (only John Henry, with 16, has more). He was an exceptional horse, in mind, body, spirit, and heart. Lots of horses can’t take the pressure of the battle of a race or the crowd. He loved the attention. He was a professional through and through. There was nothing he liked more than a battle. It’s what he lived for.”

Do you think another horse can come along and win the Triple Crown? “I do. In some ways it may be tougher now. Obviously, it’s doable. It’s nearly been done on many occasions since Affirmed. But fate has a strange way of working. If it’s not meant to happen, it’s not meant to happen. If there was ever a case of that, Big Brown was it. He looked like a lock. Some things, like God, are not totally understandable. Another great horse will come along and do it. It was 25 years between Citation and Secretariat. And great horses just don’t come along, sometimes for a long time. Above-average horses, yes. But great? It all has to happen at the right time. It takes a very special horse to check all the boxes.”

You were only 18 years old when you won the Triple Crown. Did you appreciate then what you know now? “Winning the Triple Crown is special, period, but I think our Triple Crown was probably the greatest Triple Crown of all time. You had two extra-special horses in a great rivalry. It was like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Both showed up every time.”

How gratifying is it for you to look back on your career and know that you won not only the Kentucky Derby, but the English, French, Irish, and Italian Derbies, too? “And the Welsh and Scottish, too, not that that matters (laughing). To win the English Derby, when you’re in Europe, that’s the Derby to win. I won the filly Triple Crown (1000 Guineas, Oaks, St. Leger) with Oh So Sharp in 1985. That was the last Triple Crown in Europe. And the males haven’t done it since Nijinsky II (in 1970). It shows how tough it is to have a horse who is special enough, and have the good fortune for that horse to stay in top form. Part of it revolves around them winning when they’re not 110 percent. Like champions in any sport, even when they’re not right, they gut it out. The will to win is just so strong.”

Your brother Doug, as president of WinStar Farm last year, was part of the team that won the 2010 Derby with Super Saver. How special was that moment? “That was great. It’s a special feeling no matter what part you’re playing. To buy a mare at a reasonable price, and use her to come up with your first Derby winner, that was great for Mr. (Kenny) Troutt and Mr. (Bill) Casner, who have put a lot into the game. Doug played a part in that. I felt happy for him and the whole team. It all has to jell.”

Got a pick for this year’s Derby? “If had to lean to one now (two weeks before the race), Dialed In looks like he fits the profile. In a 20-horse field, the pace should be hot. It should suit a horse like him. It looks like he should still have some improvement in him. To come off the pace, without much pace on, in the Florida Derby, was quite a feat. A true-run race in the Derby might set it up for him. Uncle Mo is still very much up in the air. Was the Wood Memorial the real Uncle Mo, or just a bad day? Based on his 2-year-old form, he was pretty above average.”

What all are you involved in today with your breeding operation? “A few partnerships, whatever makes sense. We’ve got a couple of horses running right now. I’ve got a 400-acre farm in northern Kentucky. I’ve got between 10 to 15 mares. I’m always getting some new ones. We average about 8 to 12 foals a year. You hope to God you get a few good ones because, right now, that’s all that’s selling. There’s hardly a middle market.”

Are your daughters horse-crazy? “My kids all like animals. They all had ponies. They all learned to ride. But they’re all dancers. I would have had a problem if one of them fell in love with being a jockey because I know how hard it is on you. I pretty much broke every bone in my body, and I was lucky because I walked away healthy.”

Hobbies? “I love to play golf. When I rode in Europe, I learned to play a little bit, but I never had time to practice. I’d just hack around. I was probably a 20-something handicap. I’d play in the winter in Barbados with Mr. (Robert) Sangster, but I was pretty average. I got to meet Nick Faldo and some of the European players and got into golf more and decided that when I retired, I’d have time to play. I’ve learned to play at a fairly decent level. Right now my handicap is a 12, but I’ve been as low as a 6.”

Future ambitions? “I’d love to breed, raise, and race a decent horse. You’re pretty much forced now to make a living selling horses. I’d like to hang onto one I like and have it turn out to be a great racehorse. Having a racehorse is like having a franchise. You can share it with everybody – friends, the public. It’s a neat thing.”