- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

The two chestnut colts came thundering down the track almost as one. For the final several hundred yards, they were head to head as the Belmont Park crowd of 65,417 screeched and a national TV audience stared.

A photo finish was necessary to determine the winner of the 110th Belmont Stakes — for everyone, that is, except Steve Cauthen aboard Affirmed. A few yards beyond the finish line, the 18-year-old jockey stood up in the saddle and waved his left arm in triumph. He knew, even if no one else did.

“It was a great moment for racing,” Cauthen would say a quarter-century later of the epic equine struggle. “And it still is.”

On that memorable day of June10, 1978, Affirmed beat Alydar for the third straight Triple Crown race — by the staggeringly slender cumulative margin of about 1 lengths. Never in racing and seldom in sports history had there been such a rivalry.

Racing had produced a Triple Crown winner for the third time in just six years, with Affirmed following in the hoofprints of Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977). Yet the difficulty of any but a truly super horse winning the sport’s three springtime jewels was reaffirmed Saturday when Smarty Jones became the 10th Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner to fail since then.

Despite, or perhaps because of, losing repeatedly to Affirmed, Alydar emerged from their classic battles as a sympathetic figure. It takes two — two humans, two horses, two teams — to make a great rivalry, and Alydar did his part. It wasn’t his fault Affirmed always seemed a tiny bit better.

“Alydar will always be a champion to me,” said Jorge Velasquez, his rider, years later. “He couldn’t get past Affirmed, but he never stopped trying. He was the best horse I ever rode.”

Fulsome praise also came from Laz Barrera, Affirmed’s trainer: “Any other year, Alydar would have won the Triple Crown, no doubt. He was a great horse, but he just happened to come along at the wrong time.”

Possibly Barrera’s comments were reworded for public consumption; the Cuban native was known at the time for mangling the English language. Noting before that year’s Kentucky Derby that Cauthen seemed wise beyond his tender years, Barrera suggested the jockey must have descended to Earth “on a flying sausage.”

Is it just coincidence that the names “Barrera” and “Berra” are similar?

Or that the duels between Affirmed and Alydar resembled in intensity those between Berra’s New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox?

The two wonder horses tangled 10 times in 14 months from June15, 1977, through Aug.19, 1978. Affirmed won seven races and Alydar three, including once by disqualification in their final meeting in the Travers at Saratoga. Five times the margin was a half-length or less, with Affirmed winning each encounter. All told, the colts covered 105/16 miles, with Affirmed coming out ahead by about 38 feet.

In other words, they were closerthanthis.

The pair met six times as 2-year-olds in 1977, with Affirmed winning the Hopeful, Laurel Futurity and Belmont Futurity and Alydar taking the Great American and the Champagne. Then Affirmed was vanned to California and Alydar to Florida to prepare for the 1978 Kentucky Derby. By way of warming up, each won several races in spectacular fashion, whetting the appetites of knowledgeable fans for the Triple Crown series.

On Derby day, bettors at Churchill Downs made Alydar a 6-5 favorite with Affirmed at 9-5. Perhaps struck in an eye by a clod of dirt, Alydar dropped far back early, then rallied with a furious stretch run that had him within 1 lengths of Affirmed at the finish.

Two weeks later in the Preakness, the two staged a preview of their Belmont duel. Alydar trailed by a neck at the eighth pole, and they fought all the way down the stretch before Affirmed prevailed by a neck.

Three weeks after that, Affirmed faced a double challenge in the Belmont. First, did he belong way up there with legendary greats like Man o’ War, Seabiscuit, War Admiral and Citation? Second, could he hold off his stubborn adversary one more time?

There were five horses in the field, but only two mattered. With Affirmed leading on the inside, Alydar caught up on the backstretch, and the two ran nose to nose for seven furlongs. With Affirmed finally getting tired, Cauthen said later, Alydar poked his nose in front turning for home.

It was now or never for Affirmed’s Triple Crown bid, and Cauthen resorted to what he called “my secret weapon.” Switching his whip to his left hand, the jockey smacked his horse on the flank. Stung and perhaps insulted, Affirmed turned it on and regained a tiny lead almost immediately. Somehow, he held it for the final 300 yards, winning in 2:264/5 over the 1-mile distance that had ruined many a lesser colt.

What was the final margin?

“Six inches,” Cauthen said, shaking his head. “I can’t believe it.”

Veteran horseman Ogden Phipps, president of the New York Racing Association, called it “the greatest race I have ever seen,” and few if any spectators disagreed.

The great foes met only once more, in the Travers, when a careless move by Affirmed jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. cut off Alydar and caused him to be disqualified. Though both raced at age 4 in 1979, they never saw each other again. Affirmed, who was Horse of the Year at ages 3 and 4, won 22 of 29 races and earned $2,393,818; Alydar’s numbers were 14 victories (and nine seconds) in 26 races for $957,195. Both are in racing’s Hall of Fame, and both were successful at stud.

Alydar was euthanized Nov.15, 1990, after breaking a leg in his stall. Affirmed died Jan.13, 2001, following months of leg problems. And if there is a horse heaven, we may assume they are there — and, of course, close together.

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