1979: A Double for a Triple Crown Winner
When he was two years old, Affirmed was outstanding. In nine starts during the 1977 season, he won seven times. Five of those victories were in graded stakes. Of all the opponents he faced as a juvenile, only one horse beat him. That was his great rival, Alydar.
Following his championship winning season at two, which took place largely in the East (the exception being one race at Hollywood Park), Affirmed moved West in 1978 to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. He was unstoppable, winning every prep race before getting the best of Alydar in each Triple Crown event. He not only equaled his win total from the previous year, but added one more victory before adding Top 3 Year Old and Horse of the Year honors to his list of accolades.
Going into the 1979 season, Affirmed was back in Southern California after spending the second half of the previous year in the East. Coming off a three race losing streak, the son of Raise a Native debuted as a four year old in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita. He was third in that race before adding a second in the San Fernando Stakes and a win in the Charles H. Strub Stakes (by a whopping ten lengths). The latter set him up for the biggest race of the track's annual winter/spring meet: The Santa Anita Handicap.
Contested at 1 1/4 miles, the distance was not going to be a problem for the reigning Triple Crown champion. His presence alone made what was already the marquee race in Southern California an even bigger event. It had been twenty-nine years since a Triple Crown winner started in the Big 'Cap. Before Affirmed, Citation was the only member of that club to try his hand at the race once known as the Hundred Grander, and he finished second behind his rival, Noor, in that one.
History would already be made with Affirmed competing in the Big 'Cap. But, if he were to win it, that meant securing a very unique place for himself in Thoroughbred racing.
Seven horses met the champion racehorse at Santa Anita on March 4, 1979. None of the opponents scared the bettors; Affirmed was made the 1.30-1 betting choice, and he ran like it. Never lower than second for the entire duration of the Big 'Cap, he and jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. patiently bided their time while Painted Wagon led the field shortly after the start. Affirmed was relaxed as he ran around the track, maybe knowing the gravity of the moment but in no way intimidated by it.
By the time Painted Wagon reached the half-mile pole, Affirmed was ready to take over. He moved up on the outside. The battle was short-lived; Painted Wagon was no match for the favorite, who effortlessly slotted his way into first place. At the top of the stretch, Affirmed opened up his advantage as the crowd cheered loudly. Tiller made a late bid, overtaking Painted Wagon, but the race for the win was over. Affirmed was the clear victor, looking regal and every bit the champion he was.
The patrons visiting Santa Anita became witness to another historical moment at the grand track. Affirmed stood alone as the only horse to win both the Triple Crown winner and Big 'Cap. He also left another mark on the event, becoming the fastest horse ever to win it with a time of 1:58 3/5 (the record would stand for more than thirty years until Game On Dude set a new standard in 2014).
And he was not done yet.
After a five length win in the Grade I Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park, Affirmed was sent to the Inglewood track's most prestigious event: the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup. It was not unprecedented for a Triple Crown champion to win the event, for Citation's career finale came in the 1951 renewal when he became racing's first million dollar earner. But, Affirmed could do what Citation and no other horse ever had before him: win the Big 'Cap, Gold Cup, and Triple Crown. Five of the biggest races the sport had to offer, and it was possible Affirmed's name would be on the list of winners for all of them.Pincay once again teamed with him and trainer Lazaro Barrera. Nine horses were going to battle him and possibly thwart his bid for the Big 'Cap/Gold Cup double. On top of that, Affirmed carried 132 pounds, the highest of his career. Still, the public liked his chances, making him the 3-10 favorite at post time. On June 24, thousands arrived at Hollywood Park to see if Affirmed would add his name alongside Seabiscut, Citation, Swaps, and Native Diver as a winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup.
He looked confident in the post parade, again not fazed by what was going on around him. Drawing the inside, Affirmed and Pincay broke perfectly and wasted no time hustling to the front. Going down the frontstretch, he dueled with Sirlad as a cluster of horses were right behind them. Affirmed was saving ground on the inside, just ahead of Sirlad. They were the clear leaders, and they stayed in that order going down the backstretch of Hollywood Park. Text was on the outside, trying to be part of the battle. All three lined up in the last turn, with the pink and black colors of Harbor View Farm in clear sight. The chestnut champion was not backing down along the rail. He knew what it was like to be battle tested, having taken on Alydar so many times. No amount of fear existed in Affirmed.
The three leading horses looked as if they were joined together as they turned in the stretch. All of them had a chance to win the Hollywood Gold Cup. Their jockeys all asked for more, knowing they were in a fight. Affirmed was the one who moved forward. He was looking straight down the frontstretch, all business. Text dropped back, third place the best result he was going to get. Sirlad continued his good effort, but Affirmed was simply unbeatable.
The margin of victory was much closer compared to the Big 'Cap, but Affirmed had accomplished the lofty goal of capturing the two biggest races in California in a span of less than four months. He actually ran the Gold Cup slightly faster than he did the Big 'Cap, completing the 1 1/4 miles in 1:58 2/5 (which is among the fastest times in the history of the race). Brilliant at two, spectacular at three, and phenomenal at four, Affirmed put together performances of the highest caliber on California racing's biggest stages.
Before retirement, three more races awaited Affirmed. He never tasted defeat again, finishing his stellar career with 22 wins, 5 seconds, and 1 third in 29 career starts. Two more championships came his way for the 1979 season: Top Older Male and Horse of the Year. His body of work made him one of the best loved, most decorated, and greatest horses of all time.
As a four year old, Affirmed basked in multiple triumphs. For California racing fans, particularly the ones who followed him during his heyday, they remember his triumphs in the Big 'Cap and Hollywood Gold Cup. Since 1979, there have only been two fellow Triple Crown winners: American Pharoah and Justify. Neither horse raced beyond three, so Affirmed continues to stand alone as the only horse to win those races and the Triple Crown, a truly laudable achievement.
It is very possible he will be the only horse to ever win all five races.