SARATOGA – Until Aug. 19, 1978, the biggest recorded crowd for a day of races without a promotional giveaway at Saratoga Race Course had been 35,330.
That date needed no promotion. It sold itself, based on the matchup between Affirmed and Alydar in the Travers, and a record-demolishing 50,359 people crammed into Saratoga.
“The plant was way over-maxed, and everybody realized it,” John Veitch said in a 1998 interview for a 20-year commemoration story in the Daily Gazette.
“But they still wanted to be there to watch it, to be a part of it.”
Nobody had a bigger part of it than Veitch, who trained Alydar and followed him into the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame in 2007.
Veitch died at the age of 77 on Tuesday in Lexington, Kentucky. Although he trained four horses who each won year-end championships during a career that spanned 1974-2003, his name will always be synonymous with Alydar, whose name will always be synonymous with the greatest rivalry in the history of Thoroughbred racing.
The son of Hall of Fame trainer Sylvester Veitch, John Veitch won 410 races in his career, including 76 graded stakes and 93 stakes overall.
It was the ones he didn’t win, with the future Hall of Famer Alydar, that became the signature of his career.
Alydar remains the only horse in history to finish second in all three Triple Crown races, to Affirmed each time, and even when Alydar won the Travers later that summer, he didn’t cross the finish line first. That was Affirmed, who was disqualified for interfering with Alydar heading into the second turn.
Despite all that, Alydar assembled a slam-dunk Hall of Fame career under Veitch’s guidance that included the 1978 Whitney at Saratoga two weeks before his clash with Affirmed in the Travers.
Veitch remained haunted by the Travers outcome, even though his horse was victorious.
“The horse was cheated,” Veitch said in the 1998 Gazette interview. “I don’t think I’ll really get over the fact that, truly in my heart, I felt that that was Alydar’s day.
“Not my day, but the horse’s day. Everything had worked out so well at Saratoga — the Whitney, the way he was training, and he was just better. He was better and better and better, amazingly.”
Veitch’s champions included Before Dawn, Our Mims, Sunshine Forever and Hall of Famer Davona Dale, who, like Alydar, raced for the legendary breeding operation at Calumet Farm in Kentucky.
Veitch was Calumet’s private trainer from 1976-82 and is widely credited with revitalizing the legendary farm, which has produced 11 Hall of Famers but had fallen on meager times. He also served in that capacity with Darby Dan, for whom Veitch won the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Classic, with Proud Truth.
After retiring from training, Veitch became chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, a tenure that ended in controversy when he was sanctioned by the KHRC for alleged regulatory violations in the wake of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic at Churchill Downs.
Life At Ten, a top contender as the second choice in the betting, was eased to the wire in last place after John Velazquez said in a nationally televised interview that Life At Ten’s warmup had been sub-par. She was not selected for a post-race drug testing, leading to an inquiry and a one-year suspension for Veitch that he fought in the courts for seven years before a settlement was reached and the suspension was expunged from his record.
It was a sour note to a Hall of Fame career that will always be defined primarily by Alydar’s battles with Affirmed.
Alydar lost the Kentucky Derby to Affirmed by a length and a half, the Preakness by a head and the Belmont Stakes by a neck..
“At the end of the Triple Crown, after finishing a gallant second each time, it was kind of bittersweet,” Veitch said in a 2007 interview with the Gazette, weeks before his Hall of Fame induction. “But, as the years have gone by, you cannot mention Affirmed without mentioning Alydar. It was the most wonderful experience.”
“The primary goal in my life has always been, and always will be, that wherever I went, whatever I did, whether I was successful or whether I failed, that my mother and father would be proud of me,” he said during his induction speech in Saratoga Springs on Aug. 7, 2007. “They would be proud of me today.”
Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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