Like a championship baseball team down five runs in the bottom of the ninth, like a tennis star down two sets to none, Affirmed looked to all the world hopelessly beaten. In his first run since winning an epic battle against Alydar to become the eleventh horse to sweep all three legs of the Triple Crown, he should have lost. But you know what? Sometimes the great ones dig deep to find something that most simply do not have. Sometimes that ball team scores six in the ninth. Sometimes that tennis champ finds a way to win the final three sets. On a Tuesday afternoon at the Spa, a long time ago, Affirmed dug deep … deeper than only one in a million could dig.
The Jim Dandy was not your average type of race going in. The world was watching because of Affirmed. The gutsy, copper colored chestnut had thrilled the sports world more each time than the previous, as he once, twice, three times broke the collective heart of Alydar and all of his supporters. Affirmed was talented, yes, but he was more than that. The heart the Laz Barrera trainee displayed in winning the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont three was something that anyone and everyone could admire. When he arrived to Saratoga, he was a racing megastar.
Perfect in seven starts already that year, and with the sport’s poster boy, Steve Cauthen, in the saddle, the Jim Dandy was to be a foregone conclusion. Only four other horses would dare challenge the mighty Affirmed, and frankly, it was not a stellar bunch. That is, save for one brave colt named Sensitive Prince.
Compromised by an outside post position and fast early fractions, the speedy son of Majestic Prince had faded to sixth in the Kentucky Derby. But, undefeated going into the Derby, and trained by the ‘giant killer’, Allen Jerkens, Sensitive Prince was far from a pushover. Jerkens’ colt was working up a storm before the Jim Dandy, and now had the services and the big-race winning skill of rider, Jacinto Vasquez. Still when the field of five entered the starting gate at the ‘graveyard of champions’, Affirmed was pounded down to a prohibitive 1-20.
Furlong after, more surprising than it probably should have been, furlong went by in the Jim Dandy with Sensitive Prince and Vasquez winging on the lead. It was more than just a lead it was a chasm. Affirmed was chasing in second, but he did not have the early get up and go on this day to stay close with the strong early fractions laid down by his talented challenger. A nearly ten-length lead on the backstretch was still four lengths in mid-stretch. It certainly looked like the man who trained Onion to shock Secretariat in the Whitney five years earlier was at it again.
But then something happened. Affirmed, who had looked like it was not going to be his day for more than a mile, started digging down inside the eighth pole. With a margin that still seemed hopeless at the sixteenth pole, Affirmed did what only champions do. Refusing to lose, the great champion came with an irresistible rush and snatched victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat only in the last few yards.
Sensitive Prince was a major talent in receipt of nine pounds. He ran the nine furlongs that day in under 1:48 against a horse who was only using the Jim Dandy as a prep for another showdown against Alydar in the Travers. Affirmed never should have won the 1978 Jim Dandy, but he did.
It’s hard to believe that it has been 35 years since this great performance by Affirmed at Saratoga. Then again, it’s even harder to believe that we haven’t seen a Triple Crown winner since the great chestnut of Harbor View Farm. Watch and enjoy!