Sunday, July 27, 2003

Cauthen puts 'Seabiscuit' in winner's circle

Steve Cauthen gives thumbs up to Seabiscuit, the new movie about thoroughbred racing, "amazed at how real the action was."

Nobody is more qualified to say so. Born in Covington to a blacksmith and a trainer, he won his first race in 1976 at the age of 16. At River Downs, he set a track record by riding 94 winners in 50 days. A year later, he had won $6.1 million and was the first (and last) jockey to be named Sports Illustrated's Athlete of the Year.

In 1978, he won the Triple Crown, a feat that has not been repeated since. This was before he broke his neck. And climbed back aboard that tiny flap of leather to win again. He is the only jockey in the world to win the Kentucky, Epsom, Irish, French and Italian derbies. Before he retired in 1993, he had 14,630 mounts.

"That scene in the movie when Red Pollard got hung up and dragged," Steve says, "well, that was almost too realistic." Steve Cauthen was 16 when he had his first big fall, which knocked him unconscious for about 10 hours. He'd broken an arm, several fingers and ribs, his collarbone. Doctors put 65 stitches above his eye and repaired a deep gash on his right hand. A month later, he won another race. Writers made much of the fact that the horse was named Little Miracle.

And even more of the fact that the boy wonder had been truly and thoroughly tested. Courage, some called it. Heart.

"Anybody who says they have no fear is lying," he says. "But you can't be afraid and ride successfully. You have to overcome it, mentally." You also have to be athletic, ambidextrous and able to make split-second tactical decisions in the midst of thundering iron-clad hooves and thousands of pounds of muscle, with no protection but goggles and a helmet.

And, of course, you have to find a horse willing to go along for the ride.

"Certain jockeys and horses just fit," he says.

Red Pollard and Seabiscuit. Affirmed and Steve Cauthen.

"He knew when I was up there," he says of his Triple Crown mount who died in 2001. "He was a great horse, the best I ever rode. Affirmed was intelligent, gifted with the heart of a lion. A little bit like Seabiscuit."

The chestnut colt was smaller than his archrival, Alydar, who like the movie's War Admiral, was a "blueblood," Steve says. Affirmed and Seabiscuit were "a little more blue collar. Both of them showed the qualities we'd like people to possess - true grit, courage, stamina."

Red Pollard was a sad figure. Steve Cauthen is not. He met his wife, Amy, in England. Born in Bellevue, she was there on a Northern Kentucky University exchange program. "It was destiny," Amy says. They live on a beautiful 360-acre breeding farm in Verona with their three daughters, near both sets of parents.

"A very good life," Amy says.

I have read a bunch of reviews of Seabiscuit, both the movie and the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Some say it is about the Depression. Others have said it's about the people. One particularly pompous woman said it was a metaphor for life.

Steve Cauthen says it is about a horse. And heart.

Two things he is uniquely qualified to discuss.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

Read the review by Enquirer film critic Margaret A. McGurk

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