- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

Nearly 120,000 people are expected to jam Belmont Park Saturday afternoon to see whether Big Brown can become horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 30 years.

Imagine the interest if he had a rival.

Although Big Brown has dominated mediocre competition on his journey to the cusp of thoroughbred history, the sport’s last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, had to face a horse who eventually joined him in the National Racing Hall of Fame.

Three times Affirmed and Alydar dueled that spring. Three times Affirmed was first and Alydar second, the margin less than three combined lengths.

“It will go down as one of the greatest rivalries and greatest events of our sport,” Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen said. “It was such an important thing for racing. … There weren’t any losers involved.”

Cauthen, Affirmed owner Patrice Wolfson and Alydar trainer (John Veitch) and jockey (Jorge Velasquez) reminisced last week for racing writers about the two colts. They went head to head 10 times. Affirmed held a 7-3 edge and they finished 1-2 in all but one of those races.

“Without Alydar, Affirmed would have won easily, and if Affirmed hadn’t been there, Alydar would have won easy,” Cauthen said. “It was like the Frazier-Ali matches - they were always great.”

Great has been used to describe Big Brown’s performance this spring. Great can’t be used to describe his competition. Things seem to be set up well for Big Brown, but 11 horses since 1979 have won the first two legs but came up short in the Belmont.

There were three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s (Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed), so why the drought?

“It’s just a very difficult task,” Wolfson said. “You need a horse that wants to go the [Belmont] distance. Horses were tougher then. I think they were inclined to run more often, and I think horses today just don’t have the stamina in many instances.”

Because Big Brown has faced only 3-year olds and not older stars like Curlin, Veitch said he shouldn’t be compared with horses like Secretariat until later in his career.

“Basically, you cannot judge a 3-year-old solely on his greatness beating other 3-year olds,” he said. “If a 3-year old can come out and beat an established, hardened campaigner that is 4 or 5 years old, then he’s proven his worth as a very good horse. If he doesn’t, or never faces an older horse, then you can’t talk about him in the same breath that you can with 3-year-olds that have done that.”

Before they faced off as 3-year-olds, Affirmed and Alydar clashed six times in 1977. In 1978, Affirmed (West Coast) and Alydar (East Coast) rolled through their prep races before meeting in the Kentucky Derby. Affirmed won by a length-and-a-half over a hard-charging Alydar, who was in ninth place a half-mile into the race.

Two weeks later, the margin shrunk to a neck as Alydar came from sixth place.

“The Derby was luckily a little bit of an easier race,” Cauthen said. “The Preakness was a tougher race - we had a great stretch run and it took a little bit more out of him.”

Veitch was undeterred. Back then, trainers didn’t get scared away by sensational horses.

“I was confident going into the Belmont, maybe even a little bit more than I had been in the Derby and the Preakness,” he said.

The colts tangled with a mile remaining.

“We got to the three-sixteenths pole and I got a head in front of him and said, ‘Well, I got him this time,’” Velasquez said.

As they turned for home, Cauthen was concerned the Triple Crown might be out of his horse’s grasp. Because Alydar ran so close to his right, Cauthen had to use the whip on Affirmed’s left side for the first time in his career.

“We were about to turn into the stretch and I felt a slight sense of fatigue,” Cauthen said. “I thought we might be in trouble and Alydar was still traveling well…. When I hit him, it was an immediate response and he dug in. I trusted Affirmed’s courage and his desire to win and I knew he would have to dig deep. I had to ask him for everything that day.”

Affirmed won by a head.

Cauthen will be at Belmont Park on Saturday hoping Big Brown and jockey Kent Desormeaux can join him and Affirmed in the record book.

“It always brings back some of the greatest memories of my life,” Cauthen said. “I would never root against anybody else who is trying to win the Triple Crown, because I wouldn’t have wanted anybody rooting against me.”

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