Michael Tanner: Who says nobody’s perfect? They never saw Steve Cauthen

Horse Racing Steve Cauthen
Michael Tanner’s Steve Cauthen: English Odyssey will be published shortly
Horse Racing Author Michael Tanner

Steve Cauthen, ‘The Kentucky Kid’, took race-riding in Britain by storm when he arrived in 1979. Leading racing historian Michael Tanner pays tribute to his legacy on the eve of publication of his new book on the jockey, Steve Cauthen: English Odyssey

When Caesar boasted ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ he left us one of the most familiar Latin phrases: I came, I saw, I conquered. 

One hopes the dictator won’t take umbrage from beyond the funeral pyre, however, if his declaration is put into the third person singular to salute Steve Cauthen’s conquest of the English Turf in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Not since Tod Sloan revolutionised race-riding in England 100 years earlier had an American jockey carved out an imperishable legacy like Cauthen. 

Sloan brought with him a new style of riding and racing that exposed flaws in our jockeys. Not for him a policeman’s seat: he crouched behind his horse’s neck, a low and streamlined seat promoting greater speed. And he caught our riders napping by forcing the pace from the gate instead of joining them in the English fashion of dawdling and coming with a late rush. 

However, fashions changed and, though not so exaggerated as of old, English races again became characterised by lack of early pace during the passage of the 20th century. Cauthen’s arrival in 1979 was akin to the second coming of Sloan. 

Cauthen’s back was so low and flat one could barely spot him from head-on: his legs and trunk angled like a human paper clip. And confident in his ability to judge pace to his benefit and the detriment of others, he revived the art of winning from the front. 

By the time he retired in 1992 his trademark seat and his willingness to employ forcing tactics had been adopted in one way or another by virtually every leading jockey in the country. Truly: he came, he saw, he conquered.

Any fan of the Turf had heard of Steve Cauthen before his arrival. He was ‘Stevie Wonder’; ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’; ‘The Kentucky Kid’ who’d taken American racing by storm as a teenager before a 110-ride streak of losers plunged him to the brink of a professional abyss.

But in my case a deep interest in his talents developed once I began clocking and writing about sectional times in the mid-1980s. One came to appreciate more fully the uncanny gifts of this supremely talented jockey. The clock became the prism through which Cauthen’s talents might be assessed as objectively as the smoothness of his riding style pleased the naked eye. Sectional times were our magnifying glass.

Switching from Eastern Standard Time to British Summer Time didn’t cause much disruption to the ‘clock in his head.’ Cauthen soon got to grips with the diversity of English tracks and it quickly became apparent that he rarely, if ever, misjudged the pace; it was as if Cauthen had the finest chronometer ticking away under his skull cap. If any rider deserved to be nicknamed ‘Nobody’ it was Steve Cauthen. Why? Because ‘Nobody’s perfect’.

The American possessed other qualities that set him aside from his colleagues in English weighing rooms; for one, hands looking more suited to holding a pick-axe instead of a set of reins down which the rider transmits the most sensitive of messages, belied their heft to gossamer effect. Yet Cauthen’s understanding of pace was his most sublime trait.

Consequently, Steve became a godsend to the columns based on sectional timing that I contributed to Turf newspapers and periodicals – and led me to assisting Channel 4 racecallers Simon Holt and Graham Goode with in-running fractions that told them whether the pace was fast or slow. 

The jockey must be able to read the pace and adjust to its ramifications, quite literally, on the hoof. Once the gates slam open he’s on his own. Judgement and coolness are the only currency with any value now. And you could bank on Steve Cauthen. He was as safe as the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.

I lost count of the numerous occasions I attributed victory to the ‘clock’ in Cauthen’s head – a veritable Rolex among a tray of Mickey Mouse timepieces.

The majority of Group 1 races over a mile and a half, for instance, will see at least one pacemaker in the field. But Cauthen’s acute sense of pace made a pace-making stablemate superfluous: twice in three years, the peerless American cut out his own pace to win the Derby on a front-runner.

Steve Cauthen, unlike Caesar, was no braggart. Modesty became him. Often he confessed to feeling uneasy with being labelled some kind of ‘god’ just because he won horse races. Nevertheless, to us railbirds there was something joyous about watching how Cauthen applied the guile and the horse supplied the power to leave us believing in centaurs. 

He dazzled us with talents based on an acute understanding of the thoroughbred and its foibles that only materialises when horseman and jockey are one and the same – which is not always the case. The extraordinary thing was Cauthen made the extraordinary happen so regularly the extraordinary seemed normal.

Cauthen may or may not have been a genius – whatever that means – in the saddle. But if he was a genius, he was one of the few of that ilk both intelligent and articulate enough to give us some explanation as to how he worked his wonders. 

For that alone the English racegoer must give thanks because many of our great jockeys burdened with ‘genius’ down the centuries, from Fordham and Archer to Piggott and Eddery, have struggled to translate their philosophy or methodology into words. But it is Steve Cauthen’s words that provide the warp to the weft provided by sectional timing throughout this book.

We in England may not have claimed Steve Cauthen as one of our own for long, but for as long as it lasted it was a blast of fresh air. And that’s why it demanded recording in print.

Venit, vidit, vicit.

• Michael Tanner’s Steve Cauthen: English Odyssey (with a foreword by Cauthen) will be published shortly.

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