Photo: Brian Zipse
One of the greatest races ever run was contested on the biggest of possible stages.
The one-and-a-half miles of the Belmont Stakes is often a test that separates the heart of a true champion from that of a wannabe. In the case of Affirmed and Alydar, it would prove without a shadow of a doubt that they were both fantastic champions. Unfortunately for Alydar, it would also point out that one had something deep down inside that the other could not match.
Unlike the lightly raced juveniles of today, Affirmed and Alydar had already proven themselves as stars the year before. Affirmed had been named champion two-year-old of 1977, but only after he had earned a hard fought, and narrow victory over the favored Alydar in his final race of the season in the Laurel Futurity. All told the two youngsters had already won ten stakes in their first year of racing, including six in which they faced each other, with Affirmed winning four. It was no wonder that they wintered as the two big favorites for the following spring’s Triple Crown.
In taking separate roads to the roses, Affirmed and Alydar only reinforced their lofty reputations. On the West Coast, the Laz Barrera trained Affirmed was much the best in four facile scores. Beginning with a victory in an allowance sprint, Affirmed was never let go any higher than 3-10 as he marched through the Southern California Derby prep schedule, adding wins in the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, and Hollywood Derby to the son of Exclusive Native's impressive record.
Meanwhile back east, the chestnut son of Raise a Native was dominating his competition in Florida. Easy wins in an allowance, the Flamingo, and the Florida Derby had backers of Alydar feeling confident. The question of which great colt would be favored in the Kentucky Derby was put to rest when Alydar announced his arrival in the state with a 13-length romp in the Blue Grass.
The stage was set for an epic showdown and renewal of rivalry at Churchill Downs. It was not as close as expected. Both horses ran well, but Affirmed, the lighter colored of the two chestnuts, took over the race with a powerful move on the turn, and Alydar did not do his best running until too late. At the wire, Affirmed, at 9-5, had beaten John Veitch’s hard charging 6-5 charge by more than a length. In the Preakness, it was closer, but more of the same. Alydar made his move earlier, but Affirmed was so strong for the stretch drive, that his rival’s furious rally would fall a neck short. As the two colts moved on to New York, there would be much on the line. Affirmed would hope to become only the 11th horse to win the Triple Crown, and the third champion in six years to complete the feat.
Alydar supporters still had hope though. Belmont was his home track and where he had beaten Affirmed the fall before, when he had run right by him in the stretch of the Champagne. Veitch also had taken the blinkers off Alydar so that his colt could clearly see where his rival was at all stages, and it was widely believed that if Alydar was ever going to catch his Harbor View Farm rival again, twelve furlongs would be the distance. Fans at Belmont that day expected a show, and their expectations were wildly exceeded.
Only five horses entered the Belmont, but everyone was there to watch only two anyway. Affirmed was backed at 3-5 to become a Triple Crown winner, while Alydar was well supported at 11-10 to turn the tables.
There was palpable electricity in the air as the horses were set on their way, once around Belmont’s massive oval. Affirmed went right to the lead, and was able to set a slow pace with no real speed to challenge him early. That was all the prompting Jorge Velasquez needed to send the Calumet Farm challenger after him. By the time the two had hit the six furlong marker, they were adjoined. From there, everyone was treated to a historic battle that matched two all-time greats at the heights of their athletic prowess.
Neither superstar would give an inch. Furlong after thrilling furlong, Affirmed held a slight advantage from the inside, with Alydar snorting his hot breath down the favorite’s neck. As the pair spun out of the turn, the crowd went crazy. Both horses were giving it everything they had. Every time it appeared that Alydar might wear down his opposition and deny the Triple Crown, Affirmed found more, somewhere deep inside. Only yards away from the wire did it finally become clear that Affirmed was going to get there first. With a triumphant raise of the whip, Steve Cauthen, the best teenage rider America has ever seen, signified what they had just accomplished. It was an incredible way to win the Triple Crown.
It has been 36 years, and we have not seen a Triple Crown winner since. California Chrome might just be the horse to break the historic drought. While he does not have a great rival in which to tangle, like Affirmed had Alydar, the outpouring of emotion will be much the same as it was back in 1978, should he complete the sweep.
As for Affirmed and Alydar, they would only race one more time, in a rather unsatisfactory result of a disqualification in the Travers. Affirmed would retire with three consecutive championships. Alydar can easily be called the greatest horse never to be named champion … thanks to Affirmed. And thanks to both of them, the world was treated to the greatest race that many of us will ever see.