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Cold horse, cold rider

Affirmed, last year's Triple Crown winner, has lost five straight and his jockey Steve Cauthen has been struggling daily to understand his own reversal of form

Of necessity, thoroughbred racing fans are a hardy bunch. Nevertheless, a string of upsets can cause tremors, and at approximately 5:15 p.m. last Saturday the tremors were concentrated at Santa Anita.

Two of the sport's biggest stars, 18-year-old Steve Cauthen and Triple Crown winner Affirmed, were both in massive, and puzzling, slumps. Cauthen had ridden 75 consecutive races without once finding his way into the winner's circle, and Affirmed had somehow managed to run in five stakes races dating back to August of 1978 without winning one. The impossible had occurred. Normally, Californians are the most docile of racegoers, but when Cauthen and Affirmed finished second to Darrel McHargue and Radar Ahead in Saturday's $114,200 San Fernando Stakes, a chorus of boos greeted them.

Until 90 minutes before the San Fernando, the first $100,000 race of the California season, Radar Ahead wasn't even going to run. On race morning Gary Jones, Radar Ahead's young trainer, looked at the track and said, "My horse likes a fast track and there is no way this track is going to be fast by post time. The chances are 99.9% we'll scratch." Jones felt that there was no way the track would get enough sun in the next six hours to dry the surface sufficiently for Radar Ahead to handle it. "We wanted to run against Affirmed in the San Fernando," Jones said. "Then we wanted to come back again in the Strub two weeks from now. We've waited six months for this opportunity, and now the weather has caused us to blow everything."

As scratch time approached, Jones picked up a telephone and called track foreman Ron Moore. "Ron," Jones asked, "what does the long-range weather forecast look like?"

"Very bad," said Moore. "Three storms are expected in this area in the next week. You won't be able to count on anything." Jones looked at Radar Ahead's owner, Sidney Vail. "Let's run," Jones said. "We're in a box. Even if Radar Ahead runs poorly, the race might help get him ready for the Strub. We're out of options. I don't want to run on this kind of racetrack and neither do you, but I think we have to."

Vail concurred, and Radar Ahead, who won $250,300 as a 3-year-old last year, became a convincing winner, beating Affirmed by 2¾ lengths in 1:48. But as the race ended, there were more boos for Cauthen and Affirmed than applause for Radar Ahead and McHargue.

Cauthen could not be blamed for Affirmed's defeat. The colt got off well, dropped back of the pace set by Little Reb and Radar Ahead, and just before reaching the top of the stretch in the 1‚Öõ-mile race, began what looked like a winning run. But suddenly he flattened out. Affirmed ran just enough to make virtually everyone believe that he was capable of winning, but could not muster the verve to carry off the kill. "He didn't seem like himself," Cauthen said later. "He only ran in spots. I can usually make him do whatever I want him to by just moving my hands. On the middle of the last turn I thought we might win it, but he didn't respond. He didn't seem to like the track at all. I don't know what's wrong."

Affirmed's loss was his second in two weeks. Since defeating Alydar in such dramatic fashion in the Triple Crown races last spring, Affirmed has become an enigma. He last won in early August at Saratoga when he defeated Sensitive Prince in the Jim Dandy Stakes after enduring tremendous punishment in the last quarter of a mile. Subsequently, he led Alydar to the wire in the Travers but lost it on a foul claim. Then he lost the Marlboro Cup to Seattle Slew; the Jockey Club Gold Cup to Exceller; and this year's Malibu to Little Reb when he didn't respond in the stretch. Five consecutive losses for a Triple Crown winner are as bewildering as they are unprecedented.

Like everyone else, Laz Barrera was struggling for answers last weekend—about his horse and his jockey. "Affirmed ran only in spots," the trainer agreed. "It was a confusing race. There's nothing wrong with him; he isn't hurting. He'll run in the Strub. Stevie, I'm worried about. Racetracks are tough, cruel places. Maybe Stevie needs a little change, to go someplace else for a while, to get out of this slump. But I can't tell anybody what to do. We've had many more good times together than bad. But do you know what racetrack people do fastest? Bury others."

Last Sunday, Barrera wasn't saying whether Cauthen would ride Affirmed in the $200,000 Strub Feb. 4.

For a rider like Cauthen to have a 75-race slump, while not unheard-of, is extremely rare. "I can't explain it," he says. "Nothing is going right. Every jockey goes through slumps, but I don't understand why this one keeps going on. I thought I'd get off to a good start when I came here. I had a long rest and was mentally ready. I wish there was a simple explanation, but there isn't."

Some feel Cauthen's problems can be traced back to August and Saratoga. After winning the Jim Dandy, he took a terrible spill from a $12,500 claimer named Cute As A Button and injured his knee. Cauthen returned to riding in early September, but during the Belmont Park fall meeting he failed to win a stakes race. Had he returned from his injury too quickly? "My knee doesn't bother me at all now," Cauthen says. "My slump cannot be blamed on it."

Larry Barrera, the trainer's son and one of Cauthen's closest friends, says, "Stevie can't change his riding style. He's like a pitcher with a good curveball who gives up two homers. The pitcher doesn't junk the curveball. He sticks with it. Stevie's got to stick with what he has. It will work out, but it's tough as hell on him right now."

Since Santa Anita opened, Cauthen has had 120 mounts and only four winners—including a horse moved up from second to first on a foul claim. On Jan. 1 he won two races but then went 14 days without a winner. In his spectacular first two seasons, January had been one of Cauthen's winningest months. He shook 63 winners from January of 1977 and 23 from January of '78. Before the San Fernando, Laz Barrera said, "I hope Stevie gets a winner before he rides Affirmed. The pressure is building and building. Sure, he's riding some bad horses. But Stevie Cauthen is not supposed to have a losing streak this long. Joe Doakes don't have no losing streak this long."

Last winter Santa Anita was touted as the scene of the great jockey race, with virtually every top rider gathered there: Bill Shoemaker, Sandy Hawley, Laffit Pincay Jr., Angel Cordero Jr., Fernando Toro, Don Pierce and, of course, Steve Cauthen, who was coming off a year in which he had won 487 races and $6.1 million in purses. Steve stepped right in and won nine races in the first four days of the meeting and the great jockey race was on. But by the midpoint of the 78-day meeting McHargue had taken over. He rode 136 winners at Santa Anita, 64 more than Pincay. Cauthen finished in fourth place with 68, which was still a fine showing.

This season another anticipated jockey race has developed, with five riders separated by a total of seven winners—but Cauthen is not among them. Says McHargue, "I have to say that if Steve Cauthen were riding some of the horses I've been riding he would be either first or second at this meeting. No, I can't explain this slump. It is unreal to me."

Lenny Goodman, Cauthen's agent, puts all the blame on himself. "Steve is in a slump because I'm doing a rotten job," Goodman says. "It's as simple as that. I'm not getting him good mounts. Yes, I've heard all the stuff about his being a flash in the pan. A jockey doesn't pile up $11 million in purses in a little over two years by being a flash in the pan. Steve has not lost his touch. Just wait a while and he will come out of this thing. Blame me."

And many do. Of Cauthen's 120 mounts, there have been only eight favorites and three second choices in the betting. Cauthen does not stay on the California circuit on a year-round basis, which hurts him because trainers tend to stick with riders who will remain with them from Santa Anita through Hollywood Park, Del Mar and then back to Santa Anita in the fall for the Oak Tree meeting. "Look," says Bobby Frankel, one of California's most successful trainers, "when you put a rider on a horse and they do well together, you stick with that rider. The owner wants to see the same rider back on the horse. I stick with the riders I use year-round. Don't kid yourself about Cauthen; he'll be back on top. All the attention on his slump now is caused by the fact that he came right out of the woodwork and set very high standards. His talent is there. Champions are champions, and he is one of them. It'll show."

What's showing at present, though, isn't very good for Cauthen's image. One day last week his troubled face was played up full-page in the sports section of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. "Portrait of a struggling superstar," the caption read. Radio and television stations are covering his troubles as if he were Pete Rose in the middle of a hitting streak. And if Cauthen's losing ways continue, trainers will become even more wary as the attention grows.

Affirmed's problems may well stem from his memorable duels with Alydar. Without doubt, those races had to take something out of the colt. After going head-to-head with Alydar for a year and a half, Affirmed then had to face a rejuvenated Seattle Slew and Exceller. Now Radar Ahead, an excellent horse, is beginning to haunt him. After running only once (and winning by 15 lengths) as a 2-year-old, Radar Ahead won five of seven starts last season. He skipped the Triple Crown races but won the Swaps Stakes in July before being rested for his winter campaign at Santa Anita. He is not a fluke winner.

As for Cauthen, at week's end he decided to leave California. On Sunday afternoon, Cauthen and Goodman said they would return to New York to ride out the winter months.

"Steve and I made a decision together," said Goodman before Cauthen went 0-for-5, giving him an 0-for-80 streak. "We like Santa Anita and enjoy riding here, but at this time the best thing to do seems to be to go back to New York. Steve will go to California to ride some stakes races. He took an awful lot of criticism, but he really wasn't doing anything wrong. I just put him on too many horses that couldn't win."


Radar Ahead almost didn't make it to the gate, but he won the San Fernando easily, leaving Cauthen to ponder his future—and Affirmed's.