- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Their names are linked in racing lore forever: Affirmed and Alydar. Never the other way around. Always Affirmed first, Alydar second.

But just barely, like the results of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Affirmed by 1 lengths, by a neck, by a head.

The instant Affirmed crossed the finish line in the 1978 Belmont to become racing’s 11th — and last — Triple Crown winner, the series became a classic.

“I knew then it was a great moment for racing,” said winning jockey Steve Cauthen. “And it still is.”

Rivalries have always been a part of horse racing, from Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral to Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence. But rarely had the sport witnessed such a prolonged struggle between two determined colts that came down to so many narrow decisions.

“When those two got together it was electrifying,” recalled John Veitch, Alydar’s trainer. “You always knew they were going to put on a show, and from the first time they met until the last, they did. People remember it, and they always will, because it’s never been duplicated.”

Affirmed and Alydar met 10 times in 14 months, from June15, 1977, through Aug.19, 1978. Affirmed won seven races; Alydar three, including one through disqualification in their final meeting in the Travers at Saratoga.

Five times, the winning margin was a half-length or less — and Affirmed prevailed in all the close finishes. When the rivalry ended, the distance covered was 10 5/16th miles, with Affirmed coming out about 4 lengths ahead, or approximately 38 feet.

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

The late Laz Barrera, trainer of Affirmed, once said: “Any other year, Alydar would have won the Triple Crown, no doubt. He was a great horse. But he just happened to come along in the same year as Affirmed.”

The rumblings began in summer 1977, when the two striking chestnut colts first set foot on the racetrack. Affirmed, a sleek golden-haired son of Exclusive Native bred in Florida by Lou Wolfson’s Harbor View Farm, won the first meeting, the Youthful Stakes, in which Alydar finished fifth. It would be the only time the loser would finish worse than second.

The two met five more times as 2-year-olds, with Affirmed winning the Hopeful, Laurel Futurity and Belmont Futurity, and Alydar the Great American and the Champagne. Affirmed, trained by the exuberant Barrera, who had conditioned Bold Forbes to win the 1976 Derby, was voted champion 2-year-old and repaired to California to prepare for the Kentucky Derby.

Alydar, a striking, reddish-gold son of Raise a Native, headed to Florida under the tutelage of the young John Veitch, the son of Hall of Famer Syl Veitch.

It was six months before the two would met again. Separated by 3,000 miles, they prepped for the Derby in spectacular fashion. In Florida, Alydar won an allowance race at Hialeah and then ripped through the competition in the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby under Velasquez, who replaced Eddie Maple in the fall. Alydar returned to his Kentucky home 11 days before the Derby and with his aged owners, Eugene and Lucille Markey in attendance, scored a 13-length victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The win was as sentimental as it was impressive.

In California, meanwhile, Affirmed was just as potent, winning all four of his starts, including the Santa Anita and Hollywood derbies, by a combined margin of 17 lengths. Although Cauthen was not aboard at Santa Anita, the relationship between Affirmed and “the Kid” was something special. Cauthen, who turned 18 just before the Derby, had the same youthful vigor and uncanny natural ability.

“It was rainy out West, but we finally got some races in and won,” said Cauthen. “Alydar, though, was really kicking up a storm and the anticipation was beginning to build. People knew we had a rivalry from last year, so they couldn’t wait for the Derby.”

The pre-race buildup was remarkable. Stabled in one barn, the witty, urbane Veitch reeled off one-liners while Alydar grazed nearby, conveniently picking up his head and looking over at his trainer when his name was mentioned.

A barn away, the Cuban-born Barrera happily mangled the English language, proclaiming that Cauthen, wise beyond his years, must have been transported to Earth by a “flying sausage.”

“Here we were,” recalled Cauthen. “Alydar, the Calumet, blue-blooded, good-looking superstar horse, and Affirmed, from the other side of the track, and an 18-year-old kid who’s never been here before.”

Despite Affirmed’s 4-2 advantage, when Derby day dawned, the bettors made Alydar the 6-5 favorite, with Affirmed at 9-5. Alydar looked the part of a champion, red-coated, with muscular shoulders and two white leg markings, as he carried Velasquez and the devil’s red-and-blue silks into post No.10. Affirmed, a glazed gold, sleeker and racier, went into post No.2 with Harbor View’s pink, white and black silks.

Whether it was a clod of dirt that struck him in the eye — and he did return with a swollen eye — or a miscalculation by Velasquez, Alydar quickly dropped back, trailing Raymond Earl and then Sensitive Prince by more than 12 lengths as he ran ninth in the field of 11. Cauthen, however, kept the nimbler Affirmed close up, even allowing Believe It to come up and pass him with 440 yards to go but then rousing the colt to take command at the top of the stretch, drawing clear. Alydar, with the crowd of 131,004 screaming in anticipation, made a belated run to finish 1 lengths behind.

“I knew Alydar would be coming, but his rally was far too late to beat Affirmed,” said Cauthen, who crossed the finish line in 2:01⅕, then the fifth-fastest Derby.

Then, it got really close. Two weeks later in the Preakness, Affirmed was the favorite, but the Alydar camp wasn’t conceding anything. Veitch made no secret that he wanted Alydar closer to the pace in the Preakness, a race run at a track with tight turns that favors horses with tactical speed.

“Alydar is a one-run horse, and we needed to be closer to make a winning move,” Velasquez said. “So that’s what we wanted to do.”

Although he trailed early, Alydar was just a neck behind the front-running Affirmed at the eighth pole. Saddlecloth to saddlecloth they battled through the stretch but neither gave way. When the finish line came up, they were still separated by only a neck, with Affirmed winning 1:54 2/5.

“Alydar was breathing down our neck at the top of the stretch, but I knew I had a lot of horse left,” Cauthen said. “That was a race I never felt like we’d get beat. We were always in control.”

Now it was 6-2, Affirmed. But this time, more than just a rivalry was at stake. Affirmed was on the brink of winning the Triple Crown, a feat accomplished with seeming ease the year before by Seattle Slew, and four years before by Secretariat, considered by many to be the greatest racehorse of all time.

The challenge for Affirmed was not only whether he belonged with racing greats such as Citation, War Admiral, Whirlaway and Count Fleet, but whether he could overcome his dogged rival to do so.

Furthermore, the sweeping turns and 1 miles of the Belmont appeared more suited to Alydar’s come-from-behind style, and if ever he were to upend Affirmed’s quest, this appeared to be his best shot.

“In racing, necks have a way of changing around from one week to the next,” said Veitch, who removed Alydar’s blinkers for the race.

There was nothing else like it in Belmont history. Five horses ran, but it was essentially a match race. With Affirmed on the lead inside, Velasquez moved Alydar up to engage him on the backstretch, and the two remained locked together for seven furlongs, noses apart, as the crowd of 65,417 screamed encouragement.

“It was cat and mouse all the way down the backside,” Cauthen said.

Finally, turning for home, it appeared Alydar had poked a nose in front for the first time in the Triple Crown.

“For the first time, I felt Affirmed getting fatigued,” said Cauthen.

That was when the jockey uncorked what he calls, to this day, his “secret weapon.”

Switching his whip to his left hand, Cauthen smacked Affirmed on his flank. Stung, the colt kicked into another gear, almost immediately regaining the lead just after announcer Chick Anderson yelped “and Alydar’s got a head in front!” For the next 300 yards, exhausted, the two drew upon every ounce of energy and battled to the wire, with Affirmed desperately clinging to his narrow advantage and somehow hanging on to win in 2:26 4/5 by a short head.

“Six inches,” said Cauthen.

“Heartbreaking,” said Velasquez.

After three racetracks and almost four miles, it had come down to heart — and a narrow, bright gold head, the one belonging to Affirmed.

“What made that race so spectacular is that it was the endgame of a long series,” Veitch said. “It satisfied everybody’s appetite, except mine of course.”

The two met once more, in the Travers, but a careless move by Affirmed’s rider, Laffit Pincay Jr., cut Alydar off on the turn, causing his rival to check sharply. Alydar was declared the winner after Affirmed was disqualified and placed second. Although both raced at age 4, they never met again. Alydar finished his career with 14 victories — and nine seconds — in 26 starts and earned $957,195, while Affirmed, who was Horse of the Year at age 3 and 4, won 22 of 29 races and $2,393,818. Both were successful at stud. Both are in racing’s Hall of Fame. Alydar was euthanized Nov.15, 1990, after breaking a leg in his stall; Affirmed died Jan.13, 2001, following months of leg problems.

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