By Sam Ludu
Hailed by Hall of Fame jockeys Steve Cauthen and Laffit Pincay, Jr. as the best horse they ever rode, Harbor View Farm’s Affirmed won five Eclipse Awards in his remarkable three-year career, as champion 2-year-old colt, champion 3-year-old colt and Horse of the Year, and champion older horse and Horse of the Year.
His ultimate achievement came in June of 1978 when he became the 11th horse to take U.S. Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, the last such winner of the 20th century.
No horse ever showed more heart in reaching this summit.
During the course of that trio of classics, Affirmed was increasingly challenged by Calumet Farm’s greatly gifted Alydar, culminating in Affirmed’s heart-stopping victory by a head in the 1-½-mile Belmont Stakes. In winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, Affirmed defeated the valiant Alydar by a combined margin of less than two lengths.
What has rightly been acknowledged by most of the sport’s chroniclers as racing’s greatest rivalry — a contest of wills that threw Affirmed’s unique brilliance into greater relief — was cutthroat from the start.
Indeed, Affirmed’s nine-race 2-year-old season was essentially defined by his intense battles with Alydar. Affirmed edged Alydar in the Youthful Stakes (by a neck), the Hopeful (by a half-length), and the Futurity Stakes (by a nose). But Alydar defeated Affirmed by 3-1/2 lengths in the Great American Stakes at Belmont Park and prevailed over Affirmed by 1-1/4 lengths in Belmont’s fall Champagne Stakes, complicating the larger race for divisional honors when the two met in the defining Laurel Futurity in October.
In that 1-1/16-mile matchup, however, Affirmed again showed the singular tenacity in the stretch that was his hallmark to defeat Alydar by a neck, securing the 2-year-old championship.
Affirmed, on the rail with Steve Cauthen up, edges Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown. Affirmed displayed tremendous talent and heart in edging Alydar in all three of the classics that year. (photo courtesy of NYRA)
To prepare for the Triple Crown the next year, Affirmed was sent to California, winning all four starts, including the San Felipe Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, and Hollywood Derby. Meanwhile, Alydar thrived in Florida, taking the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby and capping his Derby preparation with a spectacular 13-length victory in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland. That performance helped to make Alydar the 6-5 post-time Derby favorite while Affirmed ended as the 9-5 second choice.
While the racing world expected a fierce battle between the two standouts, the Derby proved to be their least dramatic Triple Crown encounter, with Affirmed holding off the late-running, never-threatening Alydar by 1-1/2 lengths at the finish.
Two weeks later in the Preakness, Affirmed stalked the early pace as he had done in the Derby, but this time faced an earlier and serious challenge from Alydar nearing the far turn. Affirmed then dueled with Alydar the length of the Pimlico stretch before winning by only a neck. The narrowness of Affirmed’s victory gave added encouragement to Alydar’s partisans and prefigured a definitive battle between the two warriors in the Belmont Stakes three weeks later.
No one who witnessed the “Test of the Champion” that day, the more than 65,000 fans at Belmont or the millions watching on TV, could claim that it was anything but epic.
This time Alydar’s rider, Jorge Velasquez, dispensed with his usual come-from-behind tactics and took the fight to Affirmed and Cauthen early on, with the two colts running in tandem down the backstretch as the tempo began to quicken. As the two hit the sweeping Belmont far turn, Alydar, still on the outside, reached on equal terms with Affirmed and even appeared to take a brief narrow lead in the stretch. Nearing the wire and crowded between the rail and Alydar with his mount nearly spent, Cauthen switched to a left-hand whip for the first time ever, a desperate move that seemed to give Affirmed the extra burst that would bring victory by a mere head after 12 exhausting furlongs.
After such a titanic struggle, the Travers Stakes two months later at Saratoga was probably destined to be anticlimactic, but it was doubly so when Affirmed, who crossed the wire first in the “Midsummer Derby,” was disqualified for interfering with Alydar nearing the far turn and placed second behind his rival. It turned out to be the last time the two would ever meet, with thefinal tally in favor of Affirmed, who prevailed over Alydar seven out of 10 times.
Affirmed’s last two starts of 1978 were defeats to older horses, to Seattle Slew in the Woodward, the first matchup ever between two Triple crown winners, and to Exceller in the Jockey Gold Cup, a race in which Affirmed’s saddle slipped on the backstretch, eliminating any chance of victory. Despite these last two losses, Affirmed, by virtue of his Triple Crown success, was voted the 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year.
Affirmed’s 4-year-old campaign began as the previous season had ended, with a setback, this time in Santa Anita’s Malibu Stakes. Another defeat followed, running his losing streak to five and prompting trainer Laz Barrera to replace Cauthen with Laffit Pincay Jr.
Affirmed never lost again, reeling off emphatic victories in the Charles H. Strub Stakes and the Santa Anita Handicap, and capping his West Coast win streak with a narrow but convincing triumph in the Hollywood Gold Cup, while carrying a career-high 132 pounds. Dogged every step of the way by Sirlad and stuck on a compromising inside path that Pincay did not want, Affirmed nonetheless stopped the teletimer in 1:58 2/5, at the time only a fifth of a second off Noor’s world record for the 10-furlong distance. In winning Hollywood Park’s premier race, Affirmed became the first Thoroughbred to reach $2 million in earnings.
Three months later, at Belmont Park, Affirmed took the Woodward Stakes, setting up a world heavyweight fight in the Jockey Club Gold Cup with the formidable Spectacular Bid, the reigning Derby and Preakness champion who had just crushed older horses in the Marlboro Cup.
In the 1 ½-mile Gold Cup, Affirmed was allowed to orchestrate a leisurely pace, getting the first half-mile in 49 seconds and the mile in 1:13 1/5. That tactical advantage proved decisive as Affirmed held off Spectacular Bid in the stretch to win by three-quarters of a length, gaining Horse of the Year honors once more and ending a storied career marked by 14 Grade 1 victories and wins at distances from 5 ½ furlongs to 1 ½ miles.
What likely went unnoticed at the time was Affirmed’s extraordinary record in close contests: He won every race in which the margin of victory was less than a length, including all five photo-finishes involving Alydar, an enduring testament to Affirmed’s adamant refusal to be passed in deep stretch when the stakes were highest and his closest pursuer was at his most aggressive.
Some years after Affirmed’s death, when asked again about the legendary Affirmed-Alydar clashes, John Veitch, Alydar’s trainer, paid tribute to his charge’s ultimate foe: “Affirmed was such a multitalented horse. He had the speed in get out front and the heart to hold off challengers.”
Cauthen, who rode Affirmed in 16 of his 29 races, said of his favorite horse, “He had speed. He had courage. He never gave up. He just always battled back.”