Steve Cauthen is scheduled to fly into New York for Saturday's Belmont Stakes, and every time he makes the trip he gets to be 18 years old again, a kid ready to write one of the greatest American sports stories ever told. He sees some of the same faces at the track, hears some of the same voices he heard in 1978, when Cauthen won the Triple Crown around the time most boys his age were getting dressed for the prom.
"I get to relive the race through those people," Cauthen said by phone.
It was an epic race, too, between Cauthen's Affirmed and Jorge Velasquez's Alydar, the climax of a rivalry unlike any the sport had seen. The son of a Kentucky blacksmith, Cauthen arrived at the Belmont as an established superstar. He had 487 victories and more than $6 million in winnings in 1977, and he was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year.
"Same year Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in one World Series game," Cauthen said.
But with his staggering success, and with his breathless victories over Alydar at the Kentucky Derby (by a length and a half) and Preakness (by a neck) in the spring of '78, came the kind of pressure and expectation that might weigh down Victor Espinoza and California Chrome as they try to become the first jockey and horse since Cauthen and Affirmed to hit three homers of their own in the same season.
Cauthen felt those immense burdens way back when. He had three weeks to think about them between the Preakness and Belmont, three weeks to remind himself that he didn't want to be the teen jockey who made the mistake that cost his horse -- and his employers -- a shot at racing immortality.
Speaking to ESPNNewYork.com from his 360-acre Kentucky farm, where he breeds horses, Cauthen recalled the first time he climbed aboard Affirmed at Saratoga and how the chestnut colt seemed ordinary, even a bit lazy. The 17-year-old jockey won the Sanford Stakes with Affirmed, and still wasn't sold on the notion that the horse had it in him to be special.
Affirmed won him over soon enough, ultimately inspiring Cauthen to say, "He has the biggest heart of any horse I've ever ridden." But they were up against an opponent with the same kind of desire and talent.
"It was a Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier type of situation," Cauthen said. "We were more the Ali type in that we had speed and the ability to tactically outmaneuver you. Alydar was more like Frazier in that he was a big, strong, powerful horse. ... I knew the Belmont was going to be a battle royale and that we'd have to dig really deep to win it."
Only five horses were entered in the race. "Actually," Cauthen said, "there were really only two."
Just like there were really only two golfers in the field the previous summer at Turnberry, where Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson broke away from lesser men and staged their duel in the British Open sun.
Over the phone, as the memories hit him one after the other, Cauthen sounded as if he were right back in the saddle. "I had a once-in-a-lifetime horse who wasn't afraid of competition or getting in a knockdown, drag-out fight with anybody," he said. "By the time we got in the gate, I was ready to let it happen. I've seen the tape of the race a lot, and I never get tired of watching it. I can remember the entire race, every step, what I was thinking and what was engraved in my mind."
Affirmed set a slow pace, covering the first quarter-mile in 25 seconds and the first half-mile in 50 seconds. Seven furlongs from home, Alydar moved up to challenge on the outside and took the slightest of leads in the middle of the stretch. Velasquez, then 31, was practically on top of Cauthen, forcing the jockey known as "The Kid" to grow up in a hurry.
With three-sixteenths of a mile to go, Cauthen decided he needed to do something he'd never done with Affirmed: He hit him with the left-handed whip.
"I knew I had to find something extra that day," Cauthen said.
His horse responded. His horse always responded. With the grandstand shaking from the crowd's thunder, and with Alydar rib-to-rib with him at the end of this grueling mile-and-a-half test of wills, an exhausted Affirmed somehow extended his nose in front and kept it there to the finish.
"Jorgie didn't make any mistakes," Cauthen said. "He just came up four inches short."
Cauthen didn't make any mistakes, either, not even close. The teenager had just won arguably the greatest horse race of all time when his father, Tex, put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Well done, bud." The blacksmith always called his son "bud" when he was proud of him.
Struggling to make weight in the U.S., Cauthen would move to England and become a wildly successful jockey overseas. He overcame an alcohol problem and a broken neck suffered in a fall in 1988 to return to race in the Belmont Stakes for the first and final time four years later, when he finished fourth on the French horse Cristofori. The old-timers greeted him warmly then and will do so again Saturday at an event where Cauthen is forever young.
For the record, The Kid believes California Chrome will pull it off. "He reminds me of Affirmed in a lot of ways," Cauthen said. "He's got tactical speed, he relaxes well for Victor when it's needed and he'll go when ready. I don't think Chrome will beat himself. And I think he may still be an improving horse who seems to be gaining weight. Victor's been there before on War Emblem [in 2002], so he just needs to ride it like it's any other race."
Except this isn't any other race. California Chrome doesn't have an Alydar to worry about -- just a 36-year drought that the sport is desperate to see ended. Since Affirmed, a dozen horses have won the Derby and Preakness in the same year, and a dozen horses have failed to close the deal at the Belmont.
"I think this will be the year," Cauthen said, "because horse racing needs another hero."
It takes one to know one.