For years, everyone knew him as the most recent horse to win the Triple Crown. In a way, that distinction granted him almost mythical status, for attaining racing's grandest prize is an extremely rare feat reserved for a select few. But in between sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, this Florida-bred horse put together a highly respected and accomplished career.
Foaled in 1975, Affirmed was bred and owned by Louis Wolfson's Harbor View Farm. His sire was Exclusive Native out of the Crafty Admiral mare, Won't Tell You. A stakes winner during the late 1960's, Exclusive Native was sired by Raise a Native, who has gone on to be a constant link in the pedigrees of several Kentucky Derby champions for decades. Going back another generation, you will find that Affirmed is a descendant of the legendary Native Dancer, who came within a nose of sweeping the 1953 Triple Crown. All that kept him from doing so was losing to Dark Star in the Kentucky Derby that year.
By the end of his two-year-old campaign, Affirmed clearly showed that he had inherited the ability to win. Trained by Lazaro Barrera, he won seven of nine starts, including his debut at Belmont Park. The rest of those victories came in stakes between Belmont Park, Hollywood Park, Saratoga and Laurel Park, with the Youthful, Grade II Sanford, Hollywood Juvenile Championship, and Grade I Laurel Futurity among his triumphs. His work landed him the Eclipse Award for Two-Year-Old Male, and that by extension put him in the early conversation of Kentucky Derby hopefuls for 1978. One of his regular opponents throughout that freshman season was a horse named Alydar, who would become Affirmed's greatest rival. Owned and bred by Calumet Farm, who boasted two Triple Crown champions and countless victories, Alydar was a force in the East at two, winning several races that included a pair of Grade I contests in the Sapling and Champagne Stakes.
Affirmed's last start of 1977 came in the Laurel Futuity in late October. It would not be until early March of 1978 before he returned to the races. Based at Santa Anita for his Kentucky Derby preparations, Affirmed picked up where he left off as a juvenile. With regular rider and teenage sensation Steve Cauthen accompanying him to California, Affirmed never lost at Santa Anita during that winter/spring meet. It started with an allowance, then the Grade II San Felipe Stakes, and finally the Grade I Santa Anita Derby. No one could stop the chestnut, and that made him the West's top hope for the Kentucky Derby. Awaiting him in Louisville would be none other than Alydar, who sported a perfect record as a sophomore when he arrived at Churchill Downs.
On Derby Day, May 6, the field for the 104th Kentucky Derby consisted of eleven horses, but the race was between Affirmed and Alydar. The Calumet Farm representative went off as the top choice at 6-5, but Affirmed was not far behind in the wagering at 9-5. The expected showdown did not quite happen. Affirmed and Cauthen were within striking distance of a fast pace for much of the race before taking the lead moments before the stretch run. Alydar and Jorge Velasquez were well off the pace, but made a determined rally to catch Affirmed. They came close, but Affirmed and Cauthen won by over a length.
The margin was much closer in the Preakness exactly two weeks later. The roles were reversed in the wagering, with Affirmed at odds-on while Alydar settled in at 9-5. Affirmed dueled early before controlling the tempo in the backstretch. Alydar moved up far sooner than he had in Louisville, and he was right behind Affirmed in the stretch. Both horses displayed grit and heart, and both were worthy of the win. But only one of them finished first, with Affirmed holding off Alydar by a neck. That left the Belmont.
Three weeks after the Preakness, the two rivals were in New York. Affirmed was in line to become the eleventh Triple Crown winner and the third horse of the decade to sweep the classics. Alydar stood to at least nab a consolation prize if he could thwart Affirmed's bid. Just three other horses joined them, and the fans felt the two prinicpals could get the trophy. Affirmed was 3-5, while Alydar was sent at just over even money. The anticipated matchup happened early, with Alydar taking on Affirmed in the backstretch. They jetted away from their rivals and stayed close together the rest of the way around Belmont. After a thrilling stretch run that saw both horses take the lead, the margin was a head in favor of Affirmed. Five years after Secretariat and one year after Seattle Slew, Affirmed took his place as an immortal of the turf by sweeping the Triple Crown. Alydar, who was really a worthy Triple Crown winner (and undoubtedly one of the best horses to never captured it), had to settle for second again.
Affirmed was next seen at Saratoga, where he took the Grade III Jim Dandy Stakes before hooking up with Alydar in the Grade I Travers Stakes, one of the biggest races of the year for three-year-old horses. Inevitably, they met up in the backstretch one more time. Affirmed got to the wire first, but was disqualified after Alydar had to check up going into the far turn and lost ground before rallying for second. That gave Alydar the win. After ten starts, the head-to-head score stood as follows: Affirmed 7, Alydar 3. It would never change. Both horses raced at four, but they never again battled each other on track.
Three more starts awaited Affirmed in 1978, and two of them were at Belmont. The Marlboro Cup featured a battle between Triple Crown winners, with Affirmed taking on Seattle Slew. They were one-two, with Slew getting the win. They met up again in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Affirmed again lost to Slew, coming in fifth as Exceller pulled off the rare achievement of defeating two Triple Crown champions.
As for that last start of 1978, Affirmed returned to Santa Anita, finishing third in the Grade II Malibu Stakes. Even with those three defeats, Affirmed finished the year a multiple champion, having secured the Top Three-Year-Old Male and Horse of the Year honors at the Eclipse Awards.
As it turned out, Seattle Slew beating Affirmed in their two meetings became a foreshadowing of what was to come in 1979. Slew was retired by then, and Affirmed was back as an older horse. That meant moving up to the handicap ranks, and Affirmed made his presence felt in Southern California again.
First came a second in the Grade II San Fernando Stakes. Cauthen was aboard for that race and the Malibu, but then Laffit Pincay, Jr. took over. Pincay was familiar with the colt, having ridden him in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship and Travers. Now teaming with the champion rider from Panama, Affirmed reeled off victories in the Charles H. Strub and Santa Anita Handicap, both Grade I events. He manhandled the field in the Strub, beating everyone by a wide margin, and won comfortably in the Big 'Cap. Moving on to Hollywood Park, Affirmed would not be conquered. He swept a pair of Grade I races in the Californian and Hollywood Gold Cup at odds-on, and earned the distinction of being the first Triple Crown winner to add the Big 'Cap and Gold Cup to his resume.
After Hollywood Park, Affirmed went back to where his career started: Belmont Park. He won an allowance by a wide margin, then took the Woodward before avenging his loss in the Jockey Club Gold Cup one year earlier by succeeding Seattle Slew as its victor. Interestingly, Affirmed beat Spectacular Bid, the top three-year-old in that race, and who would in turn take Affirmed's place as the best handicap horse in training in 1980. Like Seattle Slew in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, Affirmed passed the torch to Spectacular Bid in the 1979 iteration.
It also put the finishing touches on a twenty-nine race career that saw Affirmed finish worse than third just once. Twenty-two times he had his picture taken, and he earned close to $2.4 million on track, at that point the recordholder for money won.
The big winner at the Eclipse Awards as a three-year-old, Affirmed repeated as the big winner at four, taking home another Horse of the Year honor along with the Top Handicap Horse trophy.
Now retired, Affirmed settled into life as a stallion. He actually did quite well in the breeding shed, siring dozens of talented horses like Regal State, Tibullo and Zoman, who had success in Europe. Affirmed also sired Canadian champions in Charlie Barley and Quiet Resolve. And then there was Flawlessly, who inherited her sire's drive for winning and consistency. A graded stakes winner all over the United States, Flawlessly joined her father as an Eclipse Award recipient, winning back-to-back Champion Grass Mare titles in 1992 and 1993.
Affirmed was elected to the Hall of Fame quickly, going in as part of the 1980 class. The legend would live on for just over twenty more years after the induction, passing in 2001 at the age of twenty-six. Though obviously long retired from the races by then, Affirmed was still rightly revered for his achievements, and had attained more of a mystique being the most recent Triple Crown winner. He would retain that status for another fourteen years before American Pharoah came along, but losing that moniker never affected Affirmed's standing in racing history. He loved to win, and he loved to throw down when the situation called for it. He tended to stay close to the front, but could get it done from off the pace if he needed to.
He won in the East. He won out West. He always gave an effort, and he crafted a career that stands as one of the most remarkable in turf history.
Source: Hunter, Avalyn. "Pedigree Analysis: Affirmed." December 12, 2015. https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/202871/pedigree-analysis-affirmed