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Cauthen: I was always in awe of Lester Piggott’s talent

Each jockey has his unique style. Willie Carson was a whirling dervish, Pat Eddery was bump-bump-thwack. Each was highly effective in their own way, with their records speaking for themselves.

Yet arguably the two most stylish riders in a post-war golden era of jockeyship were Lester Piggott and Steve Cauthen.

Piggott bestrode British racing like a colossus for over four decades, particularly in the sixties, seventies and early eighties. Cauthen had his first ride in May 1976 at the age of 16 and by the end of the following year, when Piggott had won the eighth of his nine Derby victories aboard The Minstrel, ‘The Kentucky Kid’ had arrived.

Riding at Aqueduct racetrack in New York in early 1977, he booted home winners with such alarming regularity that by the end of the year, he took home a slew of sporting awards, including the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, the only jockey to have held such an honour.

Lester Piggott wins the Doncaster Cup aboard Ardross from Heighlin and Steve Cauthen
Lester Piggott wins the Doncaster Cup aboard Ardross from Heighlin and Steve Cauthen (PA)

His star continued to rise in 1978 when he partnered Affirmed, who swept the American Triple Crown.

Yet then came an unexpected, catastrophic downturn, which set a course that would change his career forever. Cauthen suffered an inexplicable slump in 1979 which saw him, at one stage, go 110 rides without a win.

He second-guessed himself and was filling his frame, gaining weight. So he made a decision to take up a long-standing offer from pools magnate and powerful owner Robert Sangster to come to England where he could ride nearer to his natural weight.

He stayed with trainer Barry Hills and his wife Penny, and things instantly clicked.

The phrase ‘clock in the head’ may have been spawned years earlier, yet it described Cauthen to a tee. An exquisite judge of pace, his unflappable calm translated confidence through his soft hands to seemingly every horse he rode.

He quickly endeared himself to the adoring British public, winning with his first ride, Marquee Universal, at Salisbury on April 7 1979.

Yet the Kentucky-born Cauthen was not welcomed with open arms by everyone.

The 62-year-old will arrive in Britain this week to be part of the ITV coverage of the Cazoo-sponsored Oaks and Derby meeting.

Epsom holds a special place in his heart, as it was here that he won two Derbys, with Slip Anchor in 1985 and, two years later, with Reference Point for Henry Cecil.

The coverage will undoubtedly be rich with tributes to the greatest of them all, following Piggott’s death in Switzerland on Sunday morning, aged 86.

“Lester was a very unique guy,” said Cauthen. “The first time I met him he came over to ride in a couple of races – the DC International and the Turf Classic at Aqueduct – he said ‘hello’ when I introduced myself, but even then he was like he was (taciturn) and I didn’t know what to exactly make of him.

“Of course, when I first got over to England, it was as if he was thinking, ‘Let’s get his butt run out of here as quick as we can!’”

Despite the initial cool response, mutual admiration soon took root, however.

Cauthen explained: “As time went on, obviously we became competitors, as I started to get chances on better horses and got to compete in the big races at Ascot or wherever. At first we learned to respect each other and then we became friends.

“I think he appreciated me and I appreciated him. I was always in awe of his talent. As many people have said, you never would tell anyone to try to copy him, because his style was just so unique – nobody could do it the way he could do it.

“At the same time, the way he did it was brilliant in his own way. He was a great judge of horses.

“You talk about balance and he really did have it.”

Nijinsky with Lester Piggott before his victory in the 2000 Guineas - they would go on to win the Triple Crown
Nijinsky with Lester Piggott before his victory in the 2000 Guineas – they would go on to win the Triple Crown (PA)

Between 1955 and 1984, Piggott rode more than 100 winners a season in Britain on 25 occasions. He won his ninth and final Derby on Teenoso in 1983, yet Cauthen was struck by the way he routinely connived to get aboard the right horse, no matter who he upset.

“More than any of it, he had that determination and desire to win,” said Cauthen.

“He loved to win. He figured a way to get on the right horses and once he did, it was easy for him.

“I’ve heard of the many times that he got on rides at other jockeys’ expense, but I was fortunate that it didn’t happen to me.

“On that side, Lester was ruthless. On the other side, I’ve heard a lot about how he did a lot of things for people. He was very kind to people and did a lot of compassionate things that he didn’t want anyone to know about.”

Piggott was tall for a jockey at 5ft 8ins and struggled with his weight, surviving on cigars, coffee and the occasional piece of chocolate. Cauthen, who was signed by Cecil to take over from Piggott, also battled the scales towards the latter part of his career.

After more than a decade in England, he retired from race-riding at the age of 32, having amassed 10 British Classics and three jockeys’ championships.

Both men were stylists who could get every ounce of talent from their charges. Yet only Piggott would go to any length in a bid to snaffle the next winner.

“He was just a great competitor and he wanted to get on every horse to win every race he rode in,” added Cauthen.

“Lester was so unique. Everyone wanted to be like him, but nobody could do it.

The Queen and the Queen Mother applaud Slip Anchor winning the Derby with Steve Cauthen in the saddle
The Queen and the Queen Mother applaud Slip Anchor winning the Derby with Steve Cauthen in the saddle (PA)

“I can’t imagine even trying to ride as short as he did, especially being as tall as he was.

“We were both unique in our own way and hopefully it made British racing better in some form.”

Despite the sombre start to the week, Cauthen is looking forward to arriving back in Britain, having been invited to be part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations.

“It will be great to come over for the Oaks and Derby,” added Cauthen, who breeds from several mares at his paddocks at Dreamfields in Verona.

“I am also an advisor or racing manager for a couple of farms over here: Three Chimneys and Dixiana. I enjoy being involved,” he offered.

“For a while there I wasn’t doing much and while I was doing my own thing, it is fun talking to the others guys about all that is going on and making plans for horses. I was kind of missing that part.”

He added: “I’m looking forward to coming over for the Queen with her Jubilee. I’m basing my trip around that and obviously I’d love to stay for Royal Ascot.

“My daughter lives in London so I get to see her as well. I’m looking forward to that and trying to see some of my friends, as I haven’t been over for quite a while.”

The welcome is always much warmer these days.

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