VERONA, Ky. – Steve Cauthen will never forget the thrill of riding Affirmed to victory in the Belmont Stakes and winning the Triple Crown.
"I can visualize it in my mind anytime," he told WCPO's John Popovich as they stood in the green field of his horse farm in Northern Kentucky Tuesday.
Just 18, Cauthen had teamed with Affirmed to hold off rival Alydar in dramatic, close wins in the 1978 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
In the Belmont, Alydar pulled even with Affirmed on the backstretch, and the two raced head-to-head for three thrilling quarters of a mile, with Affirmed winning by a head.
Watch Cauthen and Affirmed win the Belmont:
"It's as special as it gets. It's the pinnacle of racing," said Cauthen, who still stands as the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown. "And to win it that way, having that kind of a rivalry, was like going into the third fight with Frazier and Ali."
Now, 36 years later, the 54-year-old Hall of Famer is ready to give up his title as the last jockey to win the Triple Crown and let Victor Espinoza enjoy the thrill.
They will get the chance if California Chrome wins the Belmont Saturday.
"This horse has got a great chance of pulling it off," said Cauthen, who runs a breeding operation at his Dreamfields farm in Verona, Ky.
"He reminds me a lot of Affirmed in the way he races, his temperament. He's got speed, but Victor can put him wherever he wants – second, third, tuck him in behind … He's got instant acceleration.
"Basically, he's proven he's better than these horses up to now – by quite a bit."
California Chrome just has to show he has the stamina.
Only 11 horses have swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Since Cauthen and Affirmed did it in 1978, 11 other horses have won the first two legs only to fail in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three races run over a five-week span.
Some believe that Commanding Curve, which skipped the Preakness to rest, will challenge California Chrome in the Belmont. But not Cauthen.
“Cal Chrome seems to be thriving on his races,” he said. “Cal Chrome may actually be improving right now. He may even beat them farther.”
At 3-5, Affirmed was the last odds-on favorite to win the Belmont. California Chrome figures to be a low price, too, just like in the Preakness, where he was the overwhelming favorite.
The excitement over California Chrome is drawing many of the Triple Crown elite to Belmont this weekend, including Cauthen and fellow jockeys Ron Turcotte (Secretariat, 1973) and Jean Cruget (Seattle Slew, 1977).
“There was a gap of 25 years between Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973),” Cauthen said. “A lot of people were saying, ‘It can’t be done.’ It’s the same thing now. A lot of horses are nearly good enough, but not quite.
"Super special horses capable of doing special things don’t come along all the time. You might see one once in your lifetime. That’s what makes it even more special if you get to see one now.
“It would be fantastic for the game,” he said.