How York Dante success put Cauthen and Reference Point on track for Derby triumph

A TRAILBLAZING trans-Atlantic career cut short when the daily battle with the scales was lost, Steve Cauthen remains one of Flat riding’s greatest exponents of pace-setting – a skill demonstrated to perfection at York 25 years ago when Reference Point won the Dante Stakes prior to an unforgettable Epsom Derby triumph.

This was a skill that first came to prominence in 1978 when a fresh-faced Cauthen – dubbed the Kentucky Kid – won America’s iconic Triple Crown on Affirmed at the phenomenally young age of 18.

That no horse has subsequently won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same season – Affirmed beat the unlucky Alydar in all three races – was testament of Cauthen’s brilliance as he became one of America’s most celebrated sportsmen and Sports Illustrated’s star of 1978.

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A year later and the American was seeking a new riding challenge in Britain where the weight allowances for jockeys were less punitive than in his homeland. Dubbed ‘Stevie Wonder’, he first teamed up with Barry Hill before succeeding Lester Piggott as Henry Cecil’s first jockey when this training legend, now synonymous with wonderhorse Frankel, was at the peak of his powers.

Cauthen, who used to mentally time televised races in America as a child so he could enhance his understanding of pace and speed, made an immediate impact with Cecil: he confounded the experts by winning the 1985 Epsom Derby from the front on Slip Anchor.

They were audacious tactics that he repeated two years later on Reference Point – the final winning margin of one-and-a-half lengths was indicative of how Cauthen controlled racing’s blue riband race on this son of Mill Reef.

Yet Reference Point, owned and bred by Louis Freedman at the Cliveden Stud in Berkshire, only took his place at Epsom after confirming his wellbeing on May 13, 1987, in York’s Mecca-Dante Stakes that honours Middleham’s 1945 Derby hero.

This colt had come to prominence when winning the Futurity Stakes, now the Racing Post Trophy, at Doncaster.

Cauthen, however, was not on board – in a rare misjudgement, he rode stablemate Suhaile, who trailed home seventh of 10 runners behind Pat Eddery on Reference Point.

The American, who broke Eddery’s stranglehold of the jockeys’ championship in 1984, ’85 and ’87, made no mistake at York after Reference Point had successfully overcome serious sinus problems that threatened his career.

Despite five weeks of inactivity, and a curtailed training programme, Reference Point – the 13-8 favourite – had seen off six of his seven opponents when entering York’s long home straight.

The only threat was Sir Michael Stoute’s Ascot Knight. While Walter Swinburn’s mount reached the pacesetter’s hind quarters in the final furlong, the long-time leader found more to win by a length in a foretaste of his Epsom win three weeks later.

Cecil’s hand-clapping reception for Reference Point and Cauthen as they returned to the unsaddling enclosure said it all – he knew the horse was a deserved short-priced favourite for Epsom.

“Reference Point was not here to impress, he was here to be nursed through his first race after illness,” said a relieved Cecil. “It was a hell of a performance.”

Cauthen concurred – the laziness that characterised the horse’s work at home, the Yorkshire Post reported at the time, was never apparent in the colt’s races.

“It is some sort of miracle that he got here at all after all his setbacks,” said the winning jockey, who had completed the English Triple Crown for fillies two years earlier when Oh So Sharp won the 1,000 Guineas, Epsom Oaks and St Leger.

After pulling off the Dante and Derby double, Reference Point went on to land the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, York’s great Voltigeur Stakes and Doncaster’s St Leger.

His career ended on a slightly disappointing note when a slight injury hindered his chances in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

As for Cauthen, he went on to secure his third – and last – jockeys’ championship on the final day of the season at Doncaster after a prolonged struggle with the aforementioned Eddery.

Cauthen’s 197 victories, a total enhanced by Reference Point’s five Group One victories, saw him finish two clear of Eddery.

Yet the title race took its toll. Cauthen’s enthusiasm for the sport began to lose its allure and it was no surprise when this great career ended in 1993 at the age of 33.

The winner of 10 English Classics, Steve Cauthen remains one of the all-time finest exponents of his craft.