The call came on Christmas Eve and the timing was all wrong. Steve and Amy Cauthen were celebrating the holidays, looking forward to the birth of their first child.
But one of Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum's racing representatives was on the line, asking Cauthen to take a substantial pay cut to continue riding for the stable.
Racing has become a depressed business. Purses are down, and even the oil-rich sheiks, who enriched the American horse sales with their giddy free spending during the 1980s, have become bottom-line conscious.
"At first I was annoyed," Cauthen said. "I know (the sheik's racing stable) needed to reorganize. But I was a legitimate expense. I was the one proven thing they had."
Cauthen could have taken the cut and continued riding for the sheik, but the more he considered that option, the less appealing it became.
"The pay cut was not related to reality," he said. "I think I was being under-appreciated in my position."
Consequently, Cauthen will not be riding in England this year for the first time since he left the United States in 1979, and now the priorities in his life are different: He is a new father, Amy having delivered a baby girl a week before the Kentucky Derby, and he is two-thirds of the way through a television assignment with ABC, which hired him as an analyst for the Derby and the other Triple Crown races, finishing with the Belmont Stakes next Saturday.
Cauthen turned 33 on Derby day. Fifteen years ago, five days after his 18th birthday, Cauthen enthralled the nation with his victory aboard Affirmed in the Derby, and in the weeks that followed they added the Preakness and Belmont, giving the colt the Triple Crown.
Affirmed's races against Alydar, who was a close second all three times, are legendary, and Affirmed's Triple Crown feat has grown proportionately with each passing year.
Cauthen's TV work has drawn lukewarm notices but he doesn't envision broadcasting as a full-time job.
Unlike any other jockey, Cauthen has been a riding champion on both sides of the Atlantic and his horses have won 2,766 races, earning purses of $51.1 million. No other jockey has come close to putting together his international collection of derby victories in the United States, England, Ireland, France and Italy.
He has not closed the door on riding again, although his weight would prevent him from riding in the United States. He weighs close to 130 pounds and says that he probably couldn't reduce to less than 119, which is what he rode at last year.
"If I came back to ride, I wouldn't want to do it (halfway)," he said the other day. "But in Europe or Hong Kong, they ride heavier, and I could still fit in there. If the right offer came along, I'd take it in two seconds."
The Cauthens--Steve is believed to have become wealthy through his riding and Amy has a law degree--live in Walton, Ky., a farm community about 80 miles north of Louisville. Cauthen and his two brothers grew up there, sons of a blacksmith, Tex Cauthen, and a trainer, Myra.
Cauthen got on his first horse at 3, dropped out of high school after two years to ride his first race horse, a 136-1 shot who finished last at Churchill Downs on May 12, 1976. But Cauthen won 240 races before that year ended and became a cover boy. In 1977, he won 487 races, his horses' purses totaled $6.1 million and he was voted an unprecedented three Eclipse Awards.
Cauthen has been breeding horses for 15 years and owns three broodmares, plus a breeding interest in Dixieland Band, whose son, Dixieland Heat, was injured and finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby. Cauthen once sold a son of Affirmed for $385,000 at a Keeneland yearling auction.
Affirmed's victory in the Derby, by 1 1/2 lengths over Alydar, was his easiest in the series. Affirmed beat Alydar by a neck in the Preakness, setting the stage for their epic battle in the Belmont.
Jorge Velasquez sent Alydar up to battle Affirmed for the lead with seven furlongs to run, and the colts battled head and head for the rest of the 1 1/2-mile race.
Cauthen later lost the mount on Affirmed, part of the fall-out from his 110-race losing streak at Santa Anita during the winter of 1979.
"Several things went wrong after the Triple Crown," Cauthen said. "The summer of 1978, I had a bad fall in a race at Saratoga and I was still hurting from that. Lenny Goodman, my agent, had suffered a heart attack. And I was away from New York, which was really my back yard when I won all those races the year before. The newspapers in Los Angeles made a big deal out of every race I lost. I guess they sold a lot of papers."
Cauthen said that before the slump, Robert Sangster, the British soccer pools czar, had approached him three or four times about riding in England. Struggling at Santa Anita--he won 10 of 262 races for the meeting--he accepted an offer for a reported year's salary of more than $400,000, plus commissions.
"I went over thinking I'd try it for a month, and then come back to the U.S. if I didn't like it," Cauthen said.
"It turned out that I had the best job in England."