1978: Affirmed's Triple Crown
Like many legends of Thoroughbred racing, Affirmed made his presence felt all over the United States.
Foaled at Louis Wolfson's Harbor View Farm in Florida, the son of Exclusive Native won races in Kentucky, Maryland, New York, and that is not even counting his sweep of the Triple Crown.
But Affirmed weaved and raced his way into the Southern California landscape. Remembered for the greatness he displayed in the region during the 1979 season (which saw him become the first Triple Crown winner to seize the Santa Anita Handicap/Hollywood Gold Cup double), Affirmed put his stamp on the same scene a year earlier. And it was in the Southland where he began his march to racing's most sublime pantheon.
Affirmed's three-year-old campaign got underway at Santa Anita in March. He soundly defeated allowance company going 6 1/2 furlongs in his first start of the year, then got the win in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles before trouncing the field in the nine panel Santa Anita Derby. Employing different running tactics throughout the Santa Anita meet, Affirmed left the Arcadia track as California's primary hope for a win in the Kentucky Derby.
Meanwhile, over in the East, another horse was establishing his credentials, and he proved to be as formidable as Affirmed was. Stationed over in Affirmed's home state of Florida for the winter, Alydar had gone undefeated since turning three. He captured an allowance and the Grade I Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah Park before winning the prestigious Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. The Florida Derby had long been a producer of Triple Crown race winners, and Alydar followed that up with a dominating performance in Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes. Decimating the opposition by double digits, Alydar firmly cemented his status as a major contender on the first Saturday in May.
Of course, you cannot discuss Affirmed without Alydar, his greatest rival. Though everyone remembers their epic battles during the 1978 Triple Crown season, the two equines were already well acquainted long before then.
They first met in the Youthful Stakes at Belmont Park in 1977. Affirmed, making his second start, stalked the leader before winning the 5 1/2 furlong event, while Alydar raced from off the pace to take fifth. They met again three weeks later in the Great American, again at Belmont, and Alydar evened the score while Affirmed took the runner up spot.
The juveniles squared off four more times in 1977, finishing one-two in each race. Affirmed took the first pair of races in Saratoga's Grade I Hopeful and Belmont's Grade I Futurity. Alydar rebounded with a victory in the Grade I Champagne, at Big Sandy, and that set the stage for the two to face off in the Grade I Laurel Futurity. The margin was close, a regular occurrence when Affirmed and Alydar were on track together. The victory went to the former, and with it the Eclipse Award for Champion-Two-Year-Old Male. In six head-to-head battles, the score stood at four wins for Affirmed, and two for Alydar.
But that was all just a warm up for the spring of 1978.
On Kentucky Derby Day, May 6th, the 104th edition of the grand event had eleven horses entered, but it seemed more like a heavyweight championship match.
In one corner was Affirmed, the win machine from California by way of Florida. Already an Eclipse Award winner, the Lazaro Barrera trainee was clearly thought of by many to possibly win at least a third of he Triple Crown.
In the other corner stood Alydar, the pride of legendary Calumet Farm, who owned and bred the colt. Favored at 6-5, many felt the charge of conditioner John Veitch could be the next horse to take his place in the annals of Calumet's history, which already had two Triple Crown champions and scores of stakes victories.
In the irons for Affirmed was young Steve Cauthen, the teenage riding sensation who had ridden the divisional champion in several starts going back to the previous summer. Piloting Alydar was the more experienced Jorge Velasquez, and both jockeys were out for their first Kentucky Derby win.
After the annual and emotional ritual of the crowd singing "My Old Kentucky Home," the eleven sophomores that successfully made it to Churchill Downs began their 1 1/4-mile adventure. Raymond Earl led until well into the clubhouse turn when Sensitive Prince took over. Affirmed spent much of the race tracking them as a fast pace developed. The splits were :22 3/5 for the first quarter and :45 3/5 for the opening half-mile. Towards the end of the backstretch, Affirmed made his move. Strolling past Raymond Earl first, the Santa Anita Derby champion took the lead from Sensitive Prince around the far turn. Believe It went with him, but Affirmed was the clear frontrunner as he traversed the final stretch.
Meanwhile, Alydar began closing after being far back early. At the final furlong, he found another gear as he caught Believe It. Affirmed still had the lead, but Alydar was not giving in. He closed with gusto, but the lage deficit proved decisive. Affirmed held on to win by more than a length in a time of 2:01 1/5.
The score was now five wins to two in favor of Affirmed, and round eight came fourteen days later in the Preakness Stakes. Obviously the lone horse to contend for the Triple Crown at this point, Affirmed won favoritism in the Triple Crown's second jewel at 1-2. Alydar still generated plenty of backing, though, exiting the gate at 9-5.
Affirmed dueled with Track Reward early before handling pace duties as he exited the first turn. The tempo was far slower than in the Kentucky Derby, with the fractions being :23 3/5 and :47 3/5. Alydar was well behind again, but he moved up far quicker than he had in Louisville. Well within striking distance of the front in the backstretch, he and Velasquez sought to atone for that tough defeat under the Twin Spires a fortnight prior.
After six furlongs in 1:11 4/5, the two giants of the 1975 crop were close together as they turned for home. Their jockeys looked for more, employing urging tactics as well as the riding stick. Both Affirmed and Alydar were well ahead of everyone, symbolic of their stature in the division. No one else was going to decide the Preakness but them.
Neither horse gave up the rest of the way. They left nothing on the track, and they again produced a thrilling finish. And for the second time in as many weeks, Affirmed beat his rival, this time by a neck in 1:54 2/5. Interestingly, the top three stayed the same for the second straight race: Affirmed, Alydar, and Believe It swept the trifecta in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Riding a seven-race winning streak, Affirmed set out for the biggest race of his career. Eleven months after Seattle Slew collected each of the spring classics, the Florida-bred found himself with the same opportunity.
Belmont Park beckoned.
Just four horses were sent to usurp the Triple Crown hopeful three weeks after the Preakness, but one of them was none other than Alydar. Down to his last chance to have a piece of the Triple Crown, the son of Raise a Native was again heavily supported at just over even money. But many bettors predicted they would see another Triple Crown champion, as evidenced by Affirmed's 7-10 odds.
Wasting no time and not taking any chances, Affirmed was in charge well before the first turn. But Alydar would not let him out of his sight. The Calumet representative was within a length shortly after they turned onto the backstretch. Cauthen, fully aware of the vastness of Belmont's main track, kept the pace slow, with the first half-mile going by in :50 even. Alydar caught up to Affirmed, and the two battled side by side to the delight of the crowd watching them live. Affirmed pulled ahead, but the two were in the midst of a match race. The remaining contenders were nowhere near contention.
Affimed was not picking up speed, going 1:14 for six furlongs. Alydar stayed with him as thousands of voices grew more excited. The mile was done in 1:37 2/5, and it was clear either Affirmed or Alydar would win the Belmont. They were simply too strong for everybody else on the track, and it had been that way since winter.
Alydar suddenly came up with a small lead. Perhaps the sweep would be foiled? Affirmed had something to say about that. The fans watched as the spectacle unfolded. On the inside was Affirmed, Alydar to his right. The pink and black silks of Harbor View Farm against the devil's red and blue colors of Calumet Farm. The horses of both entities, both true and highly loved champions, ran side by side, linking themselves in the way they would forever be remembered in the history of the turf. There would never be just Affirmed or just Alydar. It would always be Affirmed and Alydar.
To the roar of the enormous Belmont Park crowd, Alydar fought for all he was worth. Affirmed, equally game, was more than willing to throw down. They battled all the way to the wire, the patrons melding into one thunderous cheer when their heroes finished the race. Already an instant classic, the Belmont came down to a photo finish. By only a nose, Affirmed did what only ten horses before him had accomplished. He now owned the Triple Crown.
It was understandably tough for Alydar and his connections to take yet another runner-up finish. In any other year, Alydar could very well have been a Triple Crown champion. But there was no shame in losing to Affirmed, and Alydar rightly became a legend with his talent and tenacity during those five weeks.
The exalted duo met one more time in the 1978 Travers Stakes, which went to Alydar after Affirmed was disqualified for interference in the backstretch when he and his rival raced together. The final score stood at seven wins for Affirmed, three for Alydar.
Although they are the protagonists in Thoroughbred racing's greatest rivalry, Affirmed and Alydar were surprisingly similar in no less than a few ways. They were chestnuts who possessed an impressive appetite for competition, and they each carried within them an iron will to go out and beat everyone. The two actually had ties to Raise a Native, who has for years been a constant presence in the pedigrees of Kentucky Derby winners. Raise a Native was Alydar's sire and Affirmed's grandsire. Not only that, both of them were descendants of Native Dancer, winner of the 1953 Preakness and Belmont Stakes and one of the greatest horses to not win the Triple Crown. He almost did, coming up short by a nose to Dark Star in the Kentucky Derby that year.
With his new title as Triple Crown champion, Affirmed entered the portal to equine immortality. He went on a fantastic four-year-old campaign that started in Southern California, but he already had his place in racing history as it related to the Golden State. No Triple Crown winner had ever been West Coast based before Affirmed, and no Santa Anita Derby winner had ever come up with the whole trio of races. That makes Affirmed's achievement all the more unique.
And it undeniably solidifies him as one of the most mesmerizing horses to ever grace the circuit.