Column: Steve Cauthen remembers the last Triple Crown

Steve Cauthen, seen in May 1997, is the last person to win the Triple Crown when he rode Affirm in 1978.
Steve Cauthen, seen in May 1997, is the last person to win the Triple Crown when he rode Affirm in 1978.
(TJ¥Tony Jones / handout)

The best living symbol of horse racing’s Holy Grail was on the phone this week, keeping the hope and vision alive.

In 1978, Steve Cauthen was to the American sports scene what Jordan Spieth is now. He was a bright, new athletic face, destined for magazine covers and history books.

At age 21, Spieth won the Masters. Not unthinkable, but certainly amazing.

At age 18, Cauthen won the Triple Crown. More unthinkable and more amazing.


Cauthen is 54 now and his calling is quite different than that of Spieth, who will probably win the Masters again and who can rely on dozens in his sport to be spokesmen for golf’s great moments.

Cauthen is a lone wolf. His moment was 37 years ago. He rode Affirmed to victory in all three of racing’s jewels, and all three, were, well, a real horse race. He won the Kentucky Derby by a length and a half, the Preakness by a neck and the Belmont by a head. His cumulative Triple Crown margin of victory was less than two lengths.

Every year since then the Triple Crown has become sort of a definitive symbol of racing’s frustration. Winning it seems as unreachable as the sport it represents returning to the American sports mainstream. The question of whether a successful Triple Crown bid can get racing back on the front page has become a moot point for almost four decades. Nobody will know until happens, and it sure hasn’t.

Cauthen could relish his exclusivity and hope he goes to his grave as a symbol of the final days of racing’s wine and roses.

To his credit, he does not.

He was a booster of I’ll Have Another completing the Triple Crown sweep in 2012. The horse didn’t because he turned up injured before the Belmont. Cauthen also pulled hard in 2008 for Big Brown, who looked like a lock and then threw in a stinker of a race on Belmont day.

“This could be the year,” Cauthen said. “This looks like one of the best bunches of horses in a long time, a really good crop.”

In that crop are two Bob Baffert-trained horses, either of whom could be the favorite at the May 2 Derby. One is Dortmund, the other American Pharoah.


“I like the way Dortmund ran in the Santa Anita Derby, and I don’t think they’ve gotten to the bottom of him yet,” Cauthen said. “And American Pharoah looks like he could be a freak.”

Labeling a race horse a “freak” is among the highest compliments in the sport. Since American Pharoah nearly walked across the finish line to victory in last Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, that word is being used a lot.

Cauthen also addressed the possibility of a Triple Crown story unlike any before. That would be one of Baffert’s horses in line to win the Triple Crown and his main spoiler being the other Baffert horse.

“It would be a sad thing for Bob Baffert,” Cauthen said, “if his other horse cost him a Triple Crown.”


That is, of course, putting the horse before the cart. The Belmont is June 6, and so much can, and does, happen in racing’s Triple Crown season, making that scenario a longshot. Well, maybe 20-1.

Cauthen is among the best to address rivalries. His narrow victories in the Triple Crown races were all over the same horse, Alydar. There is still room for goose bumps just watching replays of those 1978 races.

Better yet, listen to Cauthen 37 years later.

“Laz [trainer Laz Barrera] did what he did with Bold Forbes, who nobody thought could go the Belmont distance,” Cauthen said of the 1 1/2-mile race. “He sent Affirmed out on a lot of long, slow gallops. I don’t think he breezed him once before the race.


“I remember Alydar to my outside and I wanted to keep the pace slow. …You didn’t want to go to the front that far out.

“Alydar challenged us about seven furlongs out, and thereafter, he was just there, pressing.”

Cauthen said he had never whipped Affirmed left-handed but needed to this time.

“I could feel some fatigue in Affirmed,” he said, “and I realized, at about the three-sixteenths pole, it was now or never.


“When I hit him, it was like a shock to him. He got his head back in front.”

And that’s where it stayed, bringing a victory by a head for racing’s 11th Triple Crown.

A year or so later, Cauthen went to Europe, where he had great success for many years.

“I raced all over the world — Europe, Asia, everywhere — and everywhere I went, people asked about the Triple Crown,” he said.


There have been numerous close calls since then. In 1979, Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin. Silver Charm got beat by a smart ride on Touch Gold from Chris McCarron, who kept his horse well out of the vision of the unwilling-to-be-passed Baffert horse. The next year, 1998, McCarron and Real Quiet lost by a bob and a nose to Victory Gallop.

The man whose personal fame would be enhanced if nobody gets a Triple Crown said he is certain somebody will.

“It’ll happen,” Cauthen has often told reporters. “And when it does, it’ll be good for racing.”