For Triple Crown-winning jockey Steve Cauthen, 34 years ago seems like yesterday. And after watching I'll Have Another's victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he thinks the Triple Crown drought might finally come to an end in the Belmont Stakes.
"The colt has a great temperament, nothing seems to bother him," he said of I'll Have Another, who on June 9 will get his shot at becoming the first to sweep all three races since 1978, when Cauthen did it aboard Affirmed. "He looks like he can be improving and thriving. It looks like he has a great chance."
Back when Cauthen was an 18-year-old riding sensation, he guided Affirmed to narrow victories over rival Alydar in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Since then, there has been no Triple, but plenty of tries. All 11 failed, some tantalizingly closer to the finish line than others.
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But with each win by I'll Have Another — first his stretch run to top Bodemeister by 1½ lengths in the Derby, and then his drive to the wire to reel in Bodemeister by a neck in the Preakness — Cauthen found himself flashing back to his glory days with Affirmed.
"This horse looks like he's got that same fighting spirit as Affirmed," said Cauthen, who runs a breeding farm in Verona, Ky. "He likes a game, and he wants to win and he can't wait to get another battle. He thrives on it and to me that's why more than anything he's got a good chance."
"Horses that seem to come out of their races pretty well, it means they don't bother themselves, and that's a huge benefit when you've got three tough races," he said. "It's like three title fights in five weeks. You are taking on the best around. With Affirmed, he always did the right thing. He didn't waste any energy. And when it came down to a battle, he thrived on it. And I'll Have Another seems to be coming out of his races in pretty good shape, and dug a little deeper when he had to in the Preakness."
Cauthen, who was called "The Kid" in his riding days, also feels a common bond with I'll Have Another's jockey, 25-year-old Mario Gutierrez.
"He's a fresh face, a new kid on the block, like he came out of nowhere," Cauthen said. "The kid's got a great attitude and a great smile. And like I was, he is now in position to ride in these kinds of races and a shot at maybe winning the Triple Crown."
Cauthen praised Gutierrez for the way he has handled all the hoopla surrounding the Triple Crown trail.
"He couldn't have ridden the horse any better than in the Derby and the Preakness," Cauthen said "He had him in a perfect spot both times, he was patient and made his move without a lot of fuss or fanfare. And he rode strong and got the job done."
Just like Cauthen, except Gutierrez has one more huge race to deal with.
"I've said it often that those three weeks were the longest of my career," Cauthen said. "You win the first two races and you take it in stride, and then, if you win the other you actually have chance to step into the history books and immortality. That chance doesn't happen often, and you don't want to be the one to mess it up.
"But this kid has his head on straight, he's level-headed and he feels the team has confidence in him."
Just like Cauthen. When he rode for trainer Laz Barrera and owner Louis Wolfson, they were "100 percent behind me, and they said there was no one better to be on the horse but me. That's important to hear."
I'll Have Another's connections, trainer Doug O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam, also have voiced strong support for Gutierrez.
"Mario is just wired in, he's real relaxed," O'Neill said. "He has shown his coolness in the first two legs so I think we got a great pilot for this scenario."
Again, a huge plus on the road to a Triple Crown.
"It seems all great horses always have a great team, and they're all working together, connecting and giving each other confidence," Cauthen said.