WALTON, Ky. -- Jockey Steve Cauthen, a 16-year-old out of Walton so light he had to put 5 pounds of lead in his saddle pad to make weight, entered 1977 as a rising star in America's thoroughbred racing industry.
By year's end, he was the star, a $6 million teen who amassed 487 victories, earned the Eclipse top-jockey award and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as its Sportsman of the Year.
Forty years ago, the adoring sports world nicknamed the fresh-faced, authentically personable Cauthen "The Kid." Thirty-nine years ago, The Kid won the Triple Crown aboard Affirmed in three showdowns with the great Alydar that made theirs one of the great individual rivalries in sports, on par with Ali-Frazier, Palmer-Nicklaus, Chamberlain-Russell and Brady-Manning.
But a serious fall, horrific 110-race losing streak and, ultimately, a weight gain ended Cauthen's career on American race tracks in 1979, and he accepted a $1 million offer from English businessman and horse breeder Robert Sangster to ride in Europe. His 14-year career there included three British Champion Jockey awards and victories in most of the continent's famous derbies.
And to think that, as a boy, Cauthen wanted to be an NFL quarterback, like a Johnny Unitas. But the kid who weighed a strapping 10 pounds when born in Covington on May 1, 1960, failed to grow as expected. He competed in sports, but was too small to keep up with the bigger boys.
Lucky for Cauthen, he had an outlet for his athleticism: racehorses.
Cauthen grew up with two younger brothers on a 400-acre farm owned by his father, Ronald "Tex" Cauthen, and mother, Myra Bischoff Cauthen. Both of their lives were tied to horses: his as an exercise rider and farrier, hers as a licensed trainer.
The Kid mounted his first pony at age 2, witnessed his first Kentucky Derby at 3 and owned his own horse by age 8. At 12, Cauthen got a job on a farm with a friend of his father and entered the world of horses for good. He left school after his sophomore year at Walton-Verona High School to concentrate on honing the hand, feet and brain coordinate that would make him not a "racer," but a "rider."
Little could he have known he would end up competing against elite jockeys of the era that included Angel Cordero, Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, Jorge Velasquez and Ron Turcotte.
Cauthen jockeyed at the nation's greatest racetracks during his short American career, from Belmont Park in New York to Santa Anita in California, but his first races were here at River Downs on May 12, 1976. He finished last onboard a horse named King of Swat, whose odds of winning were 136:1. But five days later, at the age of 16 years and 16 days, Cauthen rode Red Pipe to victory in the eighth race of the day.
By racing season's end, Cauthen had amassed 120 wins at River Downs and 94 in New York. The horse racing world took notice.
In a February 1977 New York Times article, Cauthen was touted as The Kid to watch. The writer wasn't wrong.
The highlight of Cauthen's American career was his and Affirmed's 10-race rivalry with Jorge Velasquez and Alydar. Cauthen and Affirmed won seven of the races, but his combined length of victory over second-place finisher Alydar in the 1978 Triple Crown races -- Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes -- was a scant two lengths.
Affirmed was the 12th horse, and Cauthen the 11th jockey, to win the Triple Crown. (Cincinnati native Eddie Arcaro won it twice, in 1941 on Whirlaway and in 1948 on Citation). Their feat wouldn't be duplicated for another 37 years, when Victor Espinoza rode American Pharaoh to the Triple Crown in 2015.
Cauthen will turn 57 in May. He and his wife, Amy, have three adult daughters.
Cauthen owns a horse-breeding farm called Dreamfields in Verona, which is just a short ride from where his legacy began on his boyhood farm in Walton.