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Affirmed-Alydar duel still sets the standard

June 03, 2008|Bill Dwyre

It was a legendary rivalry that has galloped through time without any yanking on the reins.

It was Bird-Magic, Ali-Frazier, Sampras-Agassi. Except, they could tell us about theirs.

Thirty years ago, Affirmed and Alydar glorified the three classic horse races that define their sport. When Affirmed beat Alydar by a length and a half in the Kentucky Derby, a neck in the Preakness and a head in the Belmont, sports fans thought they would never again see anything quite like it.

And they haven't.

Affirmed's 1978 Triple Crown was the most recent in a sport that covets many more. So it is nicely coincidental that the 30th anniversary of Affirmed and Alydar's stretch duel in the Belmont is also the time when the long drought seems most likely to end. Big Brown dominated the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and seems poised to do the same in Saturday's Belmont.

Still, even were Big Brown to turn in a Secretariat-like performance and win by 31 lengths, the saga of Affirmed and Alydar would not be diminished.

Both grand descendants of super sire Native Dancer, they raced 10 times. Affirmed won seven -- and one of his losses was by disqualification when he was judged to have cut off Alydar. Of the 10 races, only once did they not finish 1-2. By the time they met in the Kentucky Derby, with Alydar installed as the 6-5 favorite, they had already competed against each other six times, Affirmed winning four.

Patrice Wolfson, who with late husband, Lou, owned Affirmed, says now, "Horses were tougher back then."

Triple Crowns weren't.

Secretariat won his in 1973 with his unthinkable dominance in the Belmont. And the year before Affirmed and Alydar, Seattle Slew had won the three classics. After Affirmed, it was three in six years.

"It was starting to get a little easy," Wolfson says.

Instead, Affirmed's Triple has stood the test of time. As does the legend of Alydar, the only horse to finish second in all three classics.

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On the afternoon of June 10, 1978, Dale Austin was where he always was for the big horse races. A nationally known reporter for the Baltimore Sun and later the Racing Times, Austin was in the press box at Belmont Park for the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Austin is 75 and retired, but he calculates that he has seen more than 75,000 horse races.

None like what he was about to see.

"I knew the people well," he says. "Laz Barrera [Affirmed's trainer, now deceased] was from Cuba, kind of fiery. I remember him telling me one day in the barns how much he hated Castro, that he should be shot.

"The morning of the race, I talked to him and he said he hadn't gotten much sleep because a lot of relatives from Mexico had been calling him, all excited about the race."

Austin said that, before the race, he was unconvinced of Affirmed's invincibility.

"I thought Alydar would win. Most of us in the press did," he says.

The race began and in the backstretch, Alydar's jockey, Jorge Velasquez, decided he could not stand the tantalizingly slow pace that Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen were setting. So Velasquez pulled Alydar alongside Affirmed and, with more than half the race still to go, the stage was set for a kind of duel that may never be repeated. From that point, they were never separated by more than half a length.

"The legend is that Alydar got his head in front of Affirmed once, and I guess there is film to show that," Austin says, "But I never thought he did."

A writer for the Blood-Horse magazine described the crowd's reaction to the horses, going at it once again: "Around us grew unabashed sound, enormous sound, at once high but low, shrill but growling."

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Today, Angel Cordero is 65 and a jockey agent.

In 1978, he was one of the best jockeys in the world. He had won a Kentucky Derby with a classic ride on Cannonade in 1974, another with Bold Forbes in '76, and would join an exclusive group of jockeys when he won the Derby for the third time, bringing home Spend A Buck first in '85.

He had ridden Affirmed twice before Cauthen got the ride for the Triple Crown races.

As Affirmed and Alydar began their duel in the Belmont, Cordero had the best seat in the house -- or maybe the worst. He was aboard Darby Creek Road, who would finish third, and was six lengths back after a mile.

"I thought Alydar moved too soon," Cordero says. "I thought he might change tactics.

"I really didn't think Affirmed could go a mile and a half. I learned a lot watching that day. I didn't know until then that he wanted to go for it, that he was the kind of horse who would wait for another horse to come up to him, and then he'd go again.

"At the end, I just kind of picked up the pieces for third."

When Affirmed and Alydar hit the finish line, Cordero and Darby Creek Road were 13 3/4 lengths back.

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From his vantage point near the finish line, Charlie Rose could see the dueling horses getting larger as they got closer to him. He could see Velasquez narrow down on Cauthen on the rail, forcing Cauthen to hit Affirmed several times with the whip in his left hand.

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