When a deep and competitive field lines up for Saturday’s Whitney Handicap, one thing you will not see is a three-year-old taking on his elders. It seems that in today’s age of less racing for our biggest stars, a sophomore in the Whitney has gone the way of the dodo. It wasn’t always like this, between 1970 and 1989, no less than six youngsters defeated their elders in the historic Saratoga race. As a matter of fact, the greatest Whitney performance I’ve ever seen was turned in by a three-year-old. His name was Alydar.
After dominating the Eastern Kentucky Derby preps with disdainful ease, we all know the five-week odyssey Alydar embarked on in the 1978 Triple Crown. He was fantastic in each leg, but it was not enough, as the brave Affirmed would hold him off once, twice, and three times. It would have been easy to imagine that a layoff or letdown would be in Alydar’s future after the classic trio of races, but six weeks after the Belmont he was in Chicago for the Arlington Classic. The Calumet Farm owned son of Raise a Native destroyed his competition to the tune of a 13-length runaway. Pointing for the Travers, trainer John Veitch opted for the prestigious Whitney for his next race two weeks later.
There he would face a serious bunch of older males topped by J.O. Tobin. The English import had been the first horse ever to defeat Seattle Slew the summer before and was coming off a sharp win in the Tom Fool Handicap. Besides the two favorites there were seven others in the Whitney, and each was a legitimate stakes performer. Despite the sizable weight allowance given to three-year-olds running against older, Alydar still carried more weight than everyone other than J.O. Tobin.
More than 30,000 were in attendance for the opening Saturday at the Spa to see Alydar take on older horses for the first time. He would not disappoint. Shown the ultimate respect, the popular colt was sent off as the 7-10 choice. Well off a brisk early pace set by Buckaroo and Nearly On Time, Alydar was reserved back in seventh place early, nearly ten lengths behind. No worries for regular rider Jorge Velasquez though, as the pair begin to pick off horses one by one from the inside.
By the time second choice, J.O. Tobin had ranged up to leader, Buckaroo, on his outside, Alydar was in full flight down on the rail.
In what seemed to be a blink of the eye, Alydar blitzed to the lead inside the leading pair. As the nine horse field straightened for the Saratoga homestretch, the outcome was no longer in doubt. It was only a matter by how much the fantastic three-year-old would win by. Lengthening his advantage every stride to the wire, Alydar won the 1978 Whitney Handicap by ten lengths in 1:47 2/5 for the nine furlongs.
I’m not sure I ever saw the great horse run any better. It was vintage Alydar, and it was also the greatest Whitney performance I’ve ever seen.