THE KENTUCKY KID IS BACK, BUT NOT AS A kid. On May 1, Steve Cauthen will return to Churchill Downs, the scene 15 years ago of his stunning Kentucky Derby win aboard Affirmed. This time, though, he'll be above the fray—some 80 feet above, in fact—in the announcer's booth providing color commentary for ABC. And in mid-May, Cauthen will take on another new role when Amy, his wife of two years, gives birth to their first child. "There's more to life than riding horses," he says.
Until now, Cauthen's life has been riding horses. Born during Derby week in 1960, he was hurtling through his Walton, Ky., barnyard at a full gallop by the time he was 5. (Now horse breeders, his father, Tex, 61, was a blacksmith, his mother, Myra, 56, a horse trainer.) In 1977, a year after getting his apprentice jockey license, the 17-year-old Cauthen won a then record $6.1 million in purses. The next year he won the Derby and went on to capture horse racing's Triple Crown. In 1979 he was lured to England by a six-figure offer from British horseman Robert Sangster. Over the next 14 years, he recorded an astonishing 1,704 wins.
Now, Steve Cauthen, who turns 33 on Derby Day, has finally come home—back to Walton, where he and Amy, 28, own 300 acres of prime Kentucky horse country. "You can say I'm retired," says Cauthen, who left Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, his most recent employer, when he was asked to take a cut in his reported $1.5 million salary in January. "If the money were good enough, I might reconsider," he says. "But with the baby coming, it would take a lot of money. I'm expensive.
For now, he's content to be less expensive—but not on horseback. Aside from working this year's Triple Crown—the Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes—for ABC, Cauthen is planting trees, building a dock on his pond and attending childbirth classes. "If I never ride another race," he says, "I can sit back and say I did what I set out to do. I have no regrets."
He certainly shouldn't have, if for no other reason than what he did in the 1978 Belmont Stakes. In what many regard as the greatest stretch run ever, Cauthen whipped Affirmed to a bobbing-head victory over Alydar. The chestnut stallion's desperation plunge at the wire made Cauthen the youngest Triple Crown winner ever, and no one has won it since. After suffering through a losing streak of 110 races the following year, Cauthen jumped the Atlantic and was English Jockey Champion in 1984, '85 and '87.
He also became something of a man about town. "Elton John came to one of my parties," he recalls. But the high life came with a price. At the end of the 1985 season, Steve checked himself into a three-week alcohol dependency program at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati "because I was concerned I might be drinking too much." He maintains he was not an alcoholic. In 1988 he broke his neck in a bad spill and was laid up for seven months. "You always remember the sound of bones breaking. It's an angry sound," he says.
Amy Rothfuss of Belleview, Ky., helped him mend. Traveling with a friend in 1987, Amy had been given Steve's number by her sister, who knew the Cauthens, in case of emergency. But Steve, alerted to Amy's arrival, called first and invited her to the Diamond Stakes race at Ascot. He won, and the Queen handed him the trophy. "I was impressed," says Amy, who married Steve in 1991 after graduating from Salmon P. Chase College of Law in northern Kentucky. "Now that I'm married and have a baby coming, I have to be a little more cautious with my life," says Steve.
But then he pops a tape into the VCR, and there onscreen is Belmont in 1978, with Affirmed surging toward the finish. "Affirmed had pure guts, and he wouldn't quit," says Cauthen, watching his horse beat Alydar to the wire. "God, I still get chills watching this." He pauses to reflect. "I did it all," he says. "Now it's time for the simple, quiet life."
BILL SHAW in Walton
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