Watching the replay of Slip Anchor’s victory in the 1985 Derby, it’s hard to imagine Steve Cauthen ever having an anxious moment.
In the apricot silks of Lord Howard de Walden, the American, who’d arrived in England after a sizzling three-year professional career in his homeland that included Affirmed’s Triple Crown, went to the front as the stalls opened.
The pair proceeded to gallop their rivals into the ground with a front-running performance to rival the best at the great course over the years.
It was a drama-free Derby – which after what had gone before on the day for his jockey – must have come as a blessed relief.
“I travelled by helicopter that day,” he recalls. “We were coming from Newmarket, me and Walter Swinburn had organised it together. We didn’t want to be at the track too early and didn’t want to get caught up in the traffic. So we sent our dads over first on it and then it came back for us. Well that was the plan. On a helicopter it was a 30 minute hike and no big deal.
“But the fog set in and the pilot called us and said I can’t back to you after making the first visit over. I thought ‘oh crap’ but still expected the fog to lift. It was the middle of the day after all and was forecast to disappear – but this was England and it didn’t move.
“All of a sudden we were sitting there and didn’t have time to make it by road. Then Lester Piggott called to ask if he could jump in with us. He had his own helicopter organised and that couldn’t get to him. He was stuck too.
“The three of us were sitting in my cottage sweating it out and then luckily our guy got to us. I’ve meant to thank the pilot publicly so many times in the past. I have to give him huge thanks. He came and got us and we took off but then we had to land in some field at one point on the journey over as we couldn’t carry on.
“We sat in this field for ten minutes and he said ‘if I can get us to the Thames we’ll be alright’. He knew he could follow the river and pick up Epsom off it. We were desperate, encouraging him to do so and he gave it a go. We ended up landing as the second race was on the course at Epsom.
“The Derby was off next. When Henry (Cecil) saw me he wasn’t impressed. ‘What the hell were you playing at’ is one the things I remember him saying. He wasn’t happy but it all ended up good. After that when I was riding him for I didn’t go by helicopter anywhere, I wasn’t allowed to do it!”
If he can smile at the memory of that journey now, it’s nothing compared to the glow that Slip Anchor’s Epsom performance brings.
“I got off him after the Derby thinking he could be the best horse I’d ever sat on,” Cauthen said.
“He travelled around Epsom terrifically for a big, lanky horse. He went around there like a cat, handled it well and was a very good horse, on that day he was pretty special.
“Unfortunately he didn’t get to prove how good he was because he got hurt in his box and was never the same afterwards.
“In the Derby I wasn’t really focusing on anything but my horse, trying to get him into his proper stride and pace it right. About seven furlongs out I decided I’d let him stride on a little bit. I gave him the nudge to stretch out and at that time Willie Carson and Petoski led the chasing pack.
“He was beaten soon after and started to drag a few horse back and within a few strides I was suddenly seven or eight lengths clear. When Slip Anchor went round Tattenham Corner it was like riding a sled downhill, he was scooting, doing it so easily.
“When I took a look over my shoulder at the three furlong marker I thought ‘wow, are there any other horses in this race?’ It was a pretty cool feeling, made even more so by my dad being over to see it.”
So how special was riding in a Derby for a man who’d tasted such heights in his native America?
“It was wonderful. It’s the ultimate goal for most people that breed and race horses. That’s what the owners set as their goal and is what all of the trainers and jockeys want to achieve. It took me a while to get going but once I did we had a great time,” he said.
“Epsom is a very unusual course. At the Derby distance you break from the bottom of the horseshoe and you’re going uphill to the right slightly, then back to the left before you level off at the top of the hill. It’s pretty flat from a mile and a quarter to a mile or seven furlongs out but then starts to drop gradually.
“Then from about five-and-a-half out you hit the slope into the stretch and then you’re running on the side of a hill all the way down the straight. You have to really focus on keeping a horse balanced and travelling, once they’re off the bridle a lot of them just fall apart at Epsom.”
How does a rider, brought up on the flat, oval tracks, of America prepare for such a test?
“Lester Piggott’s father Keith sent me a bunch of the old videos before I rode in my first Derby,” he said.
“I got to look at the old races of Lester and other winners over the previous 25 years. It was helpful to see it but then it’s very different when you’re on a horse doing it yourself. It’s a unique course and a great challenge. That’s probably why so many of the Derby horses have turned out to be good stallions and have carried on the breed for so many years.”
If Slip Anchor’s win, on the course at least, was routine, it proved to be harder work for Cauthen’s second Derby winner.
Trained like his previous colt by Henry Cecil, Reference Point arrived at Epsom as the 6/4 favourite off the back of a reappearance win in the Dante. His rider chose him in preference to stablemate Legal Bid but admits there was the odd anxious moment.
“He was a horse who liked to be in front. When he got in behind he was very lazy and it was always the intention, for lots of reasons, to make the running in the Derby. But he was one who never handled Epsom at all,” he said.
“He was a big, galloping colt who loved to meet the rising ground and holding him together, keeping him balanced was the key. I got him round Tattenham Corner when thankfully he was travelling. When a horse is doing that you have a chance, once you start pushing the heads off one around there you’re pretty much sunk.
“Luckily I got him into the straight in front and from there it was really a case of keeping him balanced. He was a very good horse who overcame it all but he didn’t win the Derby because he liked the course at all, he was the complete opposite to Slip Anchor in that respect.
“It was a ride I was proud of and I won my two Derbies for two of the greatest gentlemen around, Lord Howard de Walden and Louis Freedman. They’d never won it before and it was the day of their lives. It was like giving someone the golden ticket to heaven.
“They were so grateful and happy having spent years breeding horses and they both bred their Derby winner. Henry was great, they were his first and second Derbies. It was a wonderful time at Warren Place. We had a great team of people and some great horses.”
One of those was foaled in the same year as Slip Anchor. In the maroon and white silks of Sheikh Mohammed, Oh So Sharp and Cauthen completed the Fillies’ Triple Crown, a haul that included a devastating display at Epsom.
“To me she was the best filly I ever rode – and I rode a lot of great ones. A lot of people contend that Indian Skimmer or this one or that one was better, but for me Oh So Sharp should never really have been beaten,” her rider said.
“She was in the King George at Ascot on rock hard ground that she hated. She won the Guineas on a quick surface and hated that which is why it took her so long to get going that day. At Ascot she didn’t have the best of runs, the horse I was tracking ducked left and I was on his heels and had to go with him turning in. I had to kick on sooner than I wanted to.
“Then she was beaten in the International at York on bottomless ground. Commanche Run was a mature four-year-old who had won the Leger and was a damn good horse too. Then at stud she produced a horse in Rosefinch who I won a Group One on in France. I have a lot of great fondness for Oh So Sharp.”
Great days and wonderful memories of Epsom. So where do they rank among the former rider’s career highlights?
“They are among the highest things. When I think of achievements one of the greatest ones was the battle with Pat Eddery to win the jockeys’ title in 1987. But Derbies were great days, being cool under pressure and getting the job done for wonderful people.
“That’s what gave me the most satisfaction, doing it together with those people. On both occasions I was probably on the best horse but there’s still a lot of pressure going into those races.
“It was a fantastic thing and one of the great factors was having my dad here for Slip Anchor. I called him up and said ‘I think I might win the Derby this year and you’d better get over’. To have him with me was important and made it all the better.”
Cauthen was a supreme stylist who transformed English race-riding. His streamlined American toe-in-the-iron seat and judgement of pace were gamechangers for riders in Europe. Willie Carson, speaking on Luck On Sunday only this week, told of how he too adapted his own, proven, style after seeing the American up close.
His career in England is the subject of a new book, Steve Cauthen: English Odyssey, written by Michael Tanner and published by the Racing Post.
It charts his full career in Europe, the highs and lows, the remarkable horses and stories. For its subject there are elements of pride and surprise at the publication.
“It’s all down to Michael who wrote it and talked with me. But I had no idea there was such a project and that he’d spent so long on it. I’m honoured, it’s cool to think people were paying attention to what you were doing.”
With Steve Cauthen you never took your eye off the action. He’s the best rider I’ve ever seen in the saddle and his two Derby wins perfectly encapsulate his genius. You never tire of watching them again and again.