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Racing's Great Rivalry Easily Affirmed

Last Triple Crown winner defeated Alydar seven times in 10 races over a 14-month period.

June 01, 2003|Richard Rosenblatt | Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Their names are linked in racing lore forever: Affirmed and Alydar. Never the other way around. Always Affirmed first, Alydar second.

But just barely, like the results of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Affirmed by 1 1/2 lengths, by a neck, by a head.

The instant Affirmed crossed the finish line in the 1978 Belmont to become racing's 11th -- and last -- Triple Crown winner, the series became a classic.

"I knew then it was a great moment for racing," said winning jockey Steve Cauthen. "And it still is."

Rivalries have always been a part of horse racing, from Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral to Easy Goer vs. Sunday Silence. But rarely had the sport witnessed such a prolonged struggle between two determined colts that came down to so many narrow decisions.

"When those two got together it was electrifying," recalled John Veitch, Alydar's trainer. "You always knew they were going to put on a show, and from the first time they met until the last, they did. People remember it, and they always will, because it's never been duplicated."

Affirmed and Alydar met 10 times in 14 months, from June 15, 1977, through Aug. 19, 1978. Affirmed won seven races; Alydar three, including one through disqualification in their final meeting in the Travers at Saratoga.

Five times, the winning margin was a half-length or less -- and Affirmed prevailed in all the close finishes. When the rivalry ended, the distance covered was 10 5/16th miles, with Affirmed coming out about 4 1/2 lengths ahead, or approximately 38 feet.

"Alydar will always be a champion to me," said Jorge Velasquez, Alydar's jockey. "He couldn't get past Affirmed, but he never stopped trying. He was the best horse I ever rode."

The late Laz Barrera, trainer of Affirmed, once said: "Any other year, Alydar would have won the Triple Crown, no doubt. He was a great horse. But he just happened to come along in the same year as Affirmed."

The rumblings began in summer of 1977, when the two striking chestnut colts first set foot on the racetrack. Affirmed, a sleek golden-haired son of Exclusive Native bred in Florida by Lou Wolfson's Harbor View Farm, won the first meeting, the Youthful Stakes, in which Alydar finished fifth. It would be the only time the loser would finish worse than second.

The two met five more times as 2-year-olds, with Affirmed winning the Hopeful, Laurel Futurity and Belmont Futurity, and Alydar the Great American and the Champagne. Affirmed, trained by the exuberant Barrera, who had conditioned Bold Forbes to win the 1976 Derby, was voted champion 2-year-old and repaired to California to prepare for the Kentucky Derby.

Alydar, a striking, reddish-gold son of Raise a Native, headed to Florida under the tutelage of the young John Veitch, the son of Hall of Famer Syl Veitch.

It was six months before the two would met again. Separated by 3,000 miles, they prepped for the Derby in spectacular fashion. In Florida, Alydar won an allowance race at Hialeah and then ripped through the competition in the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby under Velasquez, who replaced Eddie Maple in the fall. Alydar returned to his Kentucky home 11 days before the Derby and with his aged owners, Eugene and Lucille Markey in attendance, scored a 13-length victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The win was as sentimental as it was impressive.

In California, meanwhile, Affirmed was just as potent, winning all four of his starts, including the Santa Anita and Hollywood derbies, by a combined margin of 17 lengths. Although Cauthen was not aboard at Santa Anita, the relationship between Affirmed and "The Kid" was something special. Cauthen, who turned 18 just before the Derby, had the same youthful vigor and uncanny natural ability.

"It was rainy out West, but we finally got some races in and won," said Cauthen. "Alydar, though, was really kicking up a storm and the anticipation was beginning to build. People knew we had a rivalry from last year, so they couldn't wait for the Derby."

The prerace buildup was remarkable. Stabled in one barn, the witty, urbane Veitch reeled off one-liners while Alydar grazed nearby, conveniently picking up his head and looking over at his trainer when his name was mentioned.

A barn away, the Cuban-born Barrera happily mangled the English language, proclaiming that Cauthen, wise beyond his years, must have been transported to Earth by a "flying sausage."

Despite Affirmed's 4-2 advantage, when Derby day dawned, the bettors made Alydar the 6-5 favorite, with Affirmed at 9-5.

Alydar quickly dropped back, trailing Raymond Earl and then Sensitive Prince by more than 12 lengths as he ran ninth in the field of 11. Cauthen, however, kept the nimbler Affirmed close up, even allowing Believe It to come up and pass him with 440 yards to go but then rousing the colt to take command at the top of the stretch, drawing clear. Alydar made a belated run to finish 1 1/2 lengths behind.

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