March 23, 2010

Remembering ... Affirmed

The first time I recall seeing Affirmed in person was the 1977 Champagne Stakes. I will not sugar coat what I am about to tell you. Affirmed was not the horse I rooted for. The three year stretch from 1977 through 1979 may have been the greatest run in the history of racing. Not that the several years proceeding it weren’t great, but there was something special about those years with Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid. The Triple Crown could not have been more tangible. Slew won it, Bid should have won it, and Affirmed and Alydar staged the greatest series that will ever be seen in Louisville, Baltimore, and New York. But back to my dirty little secret; I rooted for Alydar against Affirmed time and time again. I rooted for Seattle Slew against Affirmed, and I most certainly rooted for Spectacular Bid against Affirmed. Do not hold this against me. Now more than thirty years removed, I come not to bury Affirmed, but to praise him.

Please do not misunderstand, I never disliked the great chestnut colt, I just happened to like his main adversaries more. No rival was more important to Affirmed than Alydar. So intense and so long running was their rivalry, that you can not possibly recall one without thinking of the other. Affirmed and Alydar. Alydar and Affirmed, and so it was in the Fall of 1977. Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew was on the shelf, and two powerful juveniles were more than willing to step up and take center stage. The big showdown at Belmont in the Champagne was not the first match up of the best two youngsters in the nation, but it was the most important to date. Affirmed had already gotten the best of his Calumet rival in three out of four meetings, including consecutive wins in the Hopeful and the Futurity with his new teenage rider Steve Cauthen. Affirmed was made the favorite, but my group and I were all there to see Alydar beat him. As the race unfolded, Affirmed was part of a four prong battle on the turn, and as he slowly pulled away from the rest, it was Alydar who swung out to the middle of the track and began to fly. Affirmed could not quicken enough to challenge Alydar’s explosive kick and the most important juvenile race of the year went to Alydar. Leaving the track that day we all felt that it was Alydar who was destined to be the great champion. Little did we know that he would never again finish ahead of Affirmed.

The colts came back a few weeks later at Laurel and Affirmed got the best of Alydar for the fourth time. Unlike the Champagne, where Alydar struck quickly and swooped by on the outside, Affirmed was ready for Alydar and outfought him to the wire. The Laurel Futurity clinched the championship for the son of Exclusive Native, out of the Crafty Admiral mare, Won’t Tell You. A Florida homebred for Louis Wolfson, Affirmed ran under Wolfson’s Harbor View Farm silks and was conditioned by Cuban born trainer, Laz Barrera. It was Barrera’s duty to have his charge ready for the big races upcoming.

The Belmont was a fitting finale to an amazing Spring. In the Belmont, Alydar hooked Affirmed early in the race and they proceeded to run around the immense Belmont oval in unison. Matching strides, heart, and will in perfect tandem, neither great colt would give an inch. An adoring Belmont crowd went crazy, as the rivals traded narrow advantages down the stretch. What led to this unforgettable encounter was right out of a Hollywood movie script. Not wanting to battle with Alydar all Winter, Barrera took Affirmed to California to prepare for the Derby. Affirmed was an easy winner in an allowance, the San Felipe, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Hollywood Derby in March and April. The juvenile champ marched to the Run for the Roses on a five race win streak. On the other side of the nation, Alydar was laying waste to his opposition. So impressive was the son of Raise a Native that he, and not Affirmed, was made the favorite in Louisville. The stage was set for an epic battle, and it was not wise to underestimate Affirmed. He earned hard fought victories in the Derby and then two weeks later in the Preakness, with Alydar not far behind in either contest. Thus setting up Affirmed’s attempt at immortality as a Triple Crown winner, and against the bravest of foes. The crowd screamed as Affirmed surged on the rail to stick his nose in front. Alydar stayed with him, but could not get by. Affirmed won by desperate inches in what may have been the greatest race ever run. The Test of Champions produced two, but only one could win, and once again it was Affirmed. He became the 11th Triple Crown champion. 32 years later we are still waiting for the 12th.

Saratoga was the site of the tenth edition of Affirmed and Alydar. I have never seen such a crowd at Saratoga, as I did that day for the Travers. Since the Belmont, Alydar destroyed an Arlington Classic field and then did the same to older horses in the Whitney. Meanwhile Affirmed was life and death to get up in the last few strides against the quality speed horse, Sensitive Prince in the Jim Dandy. Once again Alydar fans had hope that this time it could be different. Different it was. In a blink of an eye Affirmed, with replacement rider Laffit Pincay sitting in the irons, cut in front of the charging Alydar entering the far turn. The move severely hampered Alydar’s chances and when Affirmed hit the wire in front of Alydar, the inquiry signal went up immediately. The infraction had been bad enough to take down the Triple Crown winner. Alydar was declared the winner, giving him his third victory in ten tries against Affirmed. It would be the last time the two would ever meet.

Like a great team getting better as the year goes on to peak for the playoffs, the four-year-old Affirmed was building momentum for the huge races in the Fall at Belmont. After the Travers DQ, Affirmed had not been able to handle the older Seattle Slew in the Fall races as a three-year-old. The losing streak hit five when Affirmed lost his first two efforts of 1979. What was wrong with the Triple Crown winner? People did not have to wonder for long as Affirmed, now reunited with Laffit Pincay after being part of Steve Cauthen’s horrible losing streak, began winning again. Beginning with a ten length romp in the Strub Stakes, Affirmed would reel off six straight wins, including five grade 1 stakes. It was clear there was only one horse that could challenge the powerhouse that Affirmed had become. His name was Spectacular Bid, and Spectacular he was. The super sophomore became the third truly great horse to challenge Affirmed. The meeting would be the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Horse of the Year honors were on the line. Sent to the lead early, the beautiful chestnut was impossible to pass. Each time Spectacular Bid would make a run at Affirmed, the older colt would have an answer. He crossed the Belmont Park finish line ¾ of a length the best. Affirmed was the bond that tied together Seattle Slew, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, and himself. A Golden Age of racing, and more often than not, Affirmed was the victor.

The win was the great Affirmed’s final race. He was rightfully honored once again. Affirmed was the 2-year-old Champion of 1977, 3-year-old Champion of 1978, Handicap Male Champion of 1979, as well as Horse of the Year of both 1978 and 1979. Despite his outstanding competition, Affirmed finished first in 23 of his 29 lifetime starts, with a disqualification in the Travers. He became the first horse ever to earn $2 million, was an obvious induction into racing’s Hall of Fame, and was the greatest horse ever for his Hall of Fame trainer and riders.

Affirmed was syndicated at a then-record 14.4 million dollars. At stud, Affirmed became a solid and steady success. He may not have sired the immediate brilliance of Alydar or Seattle Slew, but much like he did on the track, Affirmed kept fighting on. He sired over 80 stakes winners, including nine champions. Notable offspring included Flawlessly, The Tin Man and Peteski. Affirmed’s sons and daughters were equally adept on turf as dirt and today I consider him to be one of the best broodmare sires in the world.

In a curious personal side note to the story of Affirmed, I was at Calumet Farm in the early 80’s when an older mare was to be sent to the breeding shed for an encounter with Alydar. The mare was none other than Won’t Tell You. Someone in my group coined the date, Alydar’s final revenge. Affirmed’s mom had a travel issue that day and we never saw the mating, but it was nice for us Alydar fans to know that he finally ended up on top. But I digress, Affirmed was a star by every sense of the word. The great horse’s life ended at the age of 26, when in 2001, he was euthanized after falling seriously ill with laminitis. The fight with laminitis was the champion’s first battle that he could not win. I remember you Affirmed.


tjreyn01 said...

Love the comment about Alydar's final revenge. I was only a baby when Affirmed was running, but as I became interested in horse racing, I quickly found out how big a champ the last triple crown winner had been. I still love to watch his replays to this day. I do favor Slew over him, but their battle was epic. Whenever we do have the next triple crown winner, it will be sort of eerie to no longer hear, "the last triple crown winner Affirmed". I've heard that for my whole life. But, goes to show how special of a horse it will take to win the crown.

mvlach77 said...

I don't know of any horse who faced stiffer competition than Affirmed.

LDP said...

I agree, those three years had to be some of the greatest years in history. Of course, I was not alive when the Bid, Slew, and Affirmed & Alydar were running (you can't say one without the other), but I hear so many tales about the battles, and of course their ultamite battle the Triple Crown. Both were great horses, there is no denying that at all, and for once I will change the saying, I think it was a blessing they were both born in the same year. I think this because had they not, we would've seen greatness, but would not have witness the greatest rivalry of all time.

william said...

yes i remeber them well...i too was at saratoga that year, at the time the largest crowd in saratoga history...i too was a huge alydar fan, maybe because he was the underdog, he was the joe frazier to muhammed ali....that belmont stakes was one of the most excitig ive ever witnessed, ive told you before i was working at belmont partk that day as an elevator operater in the clubhouse but when that race came on i left my post, put the elevator on hold to go witness it...well needless to say im still a huge fan...when the voting for who would be remembered next was done i said you cannot do affirmed without alydar...and now when i read it its true...thanks for the great memories brian

Sharon said...

Great story...I had just looked up Affirmed's past performances the other day, just to see how much he raced prior to the Kentucky Derby. All this recent talk about 4 or 6 weeks rest prior to this year's Derby had me wondering what the Triple Crown winners in the 70s did. I was amazed by Affirmed's racing schedule - only 2 or 3 weeks rest between each race, and yet he still accomplished it. Amazing horse!

Huntington Equine said...

He's tattooed on me - so you know I'm a huge fan. Nice piece Brian. I never grow tired of reliving this epic part of racing history. I was lucky enough to work around both Affirmed and Seattle Slew - no I didn't handle them, just worked there - and they are a different type of TB. They just know WHO they are -

Gary said...

I was a fan of Alydar and thought he would beat Affirmed in the Belmont. I'll never forget how Affirmed dug in and would not let Alydar get past him. I can't remember a mentally tougher horse in my lifetime. I became a huge fan of Affirmed that day.

I was and still am a believer that Spectacular Bid was the greatest racehorse ever. His loss to Affirmed in the '79 JC Gold Cup was not a black mark on Bid's greatness. At least in my mind. Affirmed was great and their is no shame in being beat by one of the greatest ever.

CiarĂ¡n said...

great piece. your dirty little secret is out!!

Kimness said...

Great article Brian - the old videos gave me goosebumps!
I didn't know that Alydar "did" Affirmed's mom! LOL - love that part too.

ja.raymond said...

Poor Bid, he tried so hard! Affirmed was such a frieghttrain!
I love watching Alydar make Affirmed work like a dog for the Belmont! Was Alydar the only one that ever did that?
And the part about Alydar's mom, pretty funny!
Thanx for the time capsule, Brian, great write, as usual! :)

Ernie said...

"Someone in my group coined the date, Alydar’s final revenge."

Fabulous. And I never read about this. Alydar was such a stud, literally and figuratively.

Both colts were spectacular, but Lefty was better, more money. Don't think I picked him once. Would appreciate him more now.

Anonymous said...


1948- Citation..3 races in April,won the Derby Trial 4 days before the Derby and worked the day before.
Coaltown..2 races in April, won the Bluegrass 9 days before the Derby and worked 3/8 in 34 2/5 Derby morning.
My Request..3 races in April, won the Wood Memorial 7 days before the Derby and worked the day before the Derby.
The Blugrass,Wood and Derby Trial used to be considered major preps. Not anymore. What will 2020 bring?


Anonymous said...

And, I remember you, Affirmed. You were the first and only Triple Crown Winner I ever saw in person--at Spendthrift Farm. You were a gorgeous chestnut with a great temperament who lived in an air conditioned stall. What a great life for one of the greatest!

I believe this golden era began with Secretariat winning the Triple Crown in 1973, followed by Slew in '77, and Affirmed in '78. Alydar and Spectacular Bid loomed large as well.

Thanks, Brian! Nice job!


Anonymous said...

Another great article about Affirmed. The 70s certainly is the Golden era of horse racing. I wholeheartedly agree that Spectacular Bid ranks right up there with the top horses who ever loaded in the starting gate. It took one hell of a horse to beat The Bid.I sincerely believe that time period between 1977- 1980 was something special Jkmooreelle

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