Thirty years from their epic battles that produced horse racing’s last Triple Crown winner, very little and everything still separate Affirmed and Alydar.
Affirmed won the Kentucky
Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes by an aggregate margin of less than two lengths, beating his arch rival in every one.
Alydar remains the only horse to run second in all three Triple Crown races.
“The neat thing about the 1978 Triple Crown was you had two great teams and two great horses,” said Affirmed’s retired Hall of Fame jockey, Steve Cauthen, who was 18 at the time. “The stars had to align for both of them, and they showed up each time. It was amazing.”
On Saturday, undefeated Big Brown will attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first in three decades. There have been 10 horses since Affirmed to capture the Derby and Preakness, only to fall short in the last and longest leg, the 11⁄2-mile Belmont.
When Affirmed fended off Alydar to win the 1978 Belmont by a nose, it marked the only time racing saw back-to-back Triple Crown winners, and it was the third in five years, following Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977).
“With the three horses winning in the ’70s, it just looked, perhaps, as if it started to get a little easy,” said Patrice Wolfson, who raced Affirmed with her late husband, Louis, for Harbor View Farms. “I had no idea it would ever take this long.
“I think it just shows how great a horse Affirmed was, to do what he did and to run with a horse like Alydar. It was something I think the racing world will never forget.”
Affirmed and Alydar met six times in their 2-year-old season of 1977, with Affirmed taking four of those matchups, including the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga Race Course, 10 days after winning the Grade II Sanford. Affirmed edged Alydar for the juvenile male championship.
At 3, the two colts prepared for the Triple Crown on different sides of the country, Affirmed in California with late trainer Laz Barrera, and Alydar in Kentucky with trainer John Veitch. Each won their final Derby prep: Affirmed in the Hollywood Derby, and Alydar in the Blue Grass.
The Derby proved to be the least taxing of the Triple Crown races for Affirmed, who won by 11⁄2 lengths. In the Preakness two weeks later, the margin had shrunk to a neck, setting the stage for what would go down as one of the finest moments in American sport.
“It’s a race that will never be forgotten,” Wolfson said.
“It was just one of the greatest races of all time, without a question,” said Cauthen.
The 110th Belmont drew only five horses: Affirmed; Alydar; Darby Creek Road, who was fourth in the Derby; Judge Advocate; and Noon Time Spender, fourth in the Preakness. Affirmed was favored, but there were many, including Alydar’s jockey, Jorge Velasquez, who believed the 12-furlong distance would work in his colt’s
“Alydar had the heart of a champion,” said Velasquez, a retired Hall of Famer. “That he kept coming back and trying so hard was amazing. It’s unbelievable. I’m on top of him, thinking, ‘We’re gonna win. We’re gonna beat him. We’re gonna get him this time.’
“He was so determined to win those races that he kept coming back and coming back. It was amazing how strong he got, and how
determined he was to win. It means he had a big, big heart.”
Breaking from post three, to Alydar’s immediate right, Affirmed went straight to the front and galloped through a quarter-mile in 25 seconds and a half-mile in 50, much slower than the fractions in either the Derby or Preakness.
Cauthen kept Affirmed in the two path, leaving room along the rail. Rather than go down inside, Velasquez steered Alydar three-wide, going around Judge
“I knew it was going to be a battle,” Velasquez said. “The whole problem came right out of the gate. The pace was so slow going into the first turn, Stevie never dropped in on the fence. I was aware of the slow pace right away, so I say, ‘Forget about it. I’m not gonna go in there.’ I had to challenge him right away.”
There was still a mile to go when Velasquez ranged up on Affirmed’s right flank heading into the backstretch. From that point on, the two horses were inseparable.
The early pressure was a tactical difference for Alydar, who came from off the pace in the Derby and Preakness. After consulting with his jockey, Veitch decided to
remove Alydar’s blinkers.
“I wanted him to relax and be very aggressive,” said Veitch, now chief state steward in Kentucky. “I figured the blinkers may not be as effective as they were, say, in the Champagne as a 2-year-old, when I put them on.
“I was looking for a change, and got together with Jorgie and talked it out a little bit, and decided that’s what we were going to do. I was trying to figure out a way to beat [Affirmed]. We came as close as we possibly could.”
Well-distanced from the rest of the field, Affirmed and Alydar turned for the long stretch run nearly side by side, Affirmed on the inside and Alydar on the outside. Knowing how much the first two legs had taken out of his colt, Cauthen began to wonder if it had been too much.
“As we were about to turn into the stretch, I could sense a slight sense of fatigue,” Cauthen said. “He obviously had a harder race in the Preakness, and I was starting to sense with some urgency that we might be in trouble. Alydar was still traveling well, and the thought crossed my mind that this is it. It’s now or never. We’re never going to have another chance, so we’re going to have to dig deep.”
Meanwhile, Velasquez could feel the frustration of the Derby and Preakness melting away. Alydar was rolling along effortlessly, and, at one point between calls, managed to get his nose in front.
“At the three-sixteenths pole, I thought I was the winner,” Velasquez said. “Then I tried to ride Stevie
a little close, making sure that I don’t get my number taken down or anything like that. I just don’t want him to be able to hit his horse right-handed. I believe I rode a winning race, but so did Stevie. I didn’t think I made any kind of mistake.”
Fearing Alydar was about to get away from him, Cauthen did the only thing he could. He switched the whip to his left hand and hit
Affirmed, who immediately responded. In a blink, he had regained the lead, and kept on going.
“I was never that good with my left, and it was something I wasn’t necessarily desiring to do, but it was a sense of urgency,” Cauthen said. “He dug in. I always trusted his courage and his desire to win. I pretty much had to ask him for everything that day. His desire and his heart is what got him home.”
For Veitch, the Belmont wasn’t simply that Alydar lost. It was that Affirmed won.
“I was as confident going into the Belmont and maybe even a bit more so than I had been in the Derby and Preakness,” he said. “All the stars again lined up just perfectly for us, but we were just beaten by a truly great racehorse.”
Though both horses went on to compete in their 4-year-old year, Affirmed and Alydar met only once more, in the 1978 Travers at Saratoga. Once again, Affirmed finished in front, but was taken down and placed second behind Alydar after Velasquez had to check his horse in the backstretch.
“You never want to win a race like that on a disqualification,” Veitch said. “Certainly, it didn’t tarnish either horse’s reputation, but it would have been nice to meet again.”
The 30-year gap is the longest in Triple Crown history, and with each subsequent attempt,
Affirmed’s name is brought back to the forefront, along with that of his rival. Even a victory by Big Brown can’t change that legacy.
“It always brings back some of the greatest memories of my life,” Cauthen said. “I would never root against anybody else winning the Triple Crown, because I wouldn’t have wanted anybody rooting against me. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t change anything.
“The 1978 Triple Crown will go down as one of the greatest rivalries and greatest events of all time for horse racing. More than anything else, that’s what I’m the proudest of, that it was such an important thing for racing. There weren’t any losers involved.
“Without Alydar, Affirmed would have won easily, and if Affirmed hadn’t been there, Alydar would have won easy. He would have won the Triple Crown. What made it so special is that each one of those [races], they were always tight, and they were always great.”