Even the most casual racing fan probably is familiar with Affirmed, who was known for 37 years as "the last horse to sweep the Triple Crown."
But did you know that Affirmed’s and Alydar’s rivalry actually began long before the Triple Crown season? In stark contrast to modern times, when long-lasting rivalries in racing are rare, Affirmed and Alydar squared off on 10 occasions over the course of two years, with one of their first significant meetings coming at historic Saratoga Race Course in New York.
Ironically for Alydar – a talented horse in his own right who was not often able to get the better of Affirmed – there was never in a time in his career that he wasn’t familiar with running against the future Triple Crown winner. Bred and owned by Calumet Farm and trained by John Veitch, Alydar was well regarded from an early age, to the extent that he debuted as a 2-year-old in the Youthful Stakes at Belmont Park, skipping the typical maiden race entirely.
Unfortunately, the Youthful Stakes marked the second career start for the impressive Belmont maiden winner Affirmed, a homebred for Harbor View Farm trained by Lazaro Barrera. Alydar, perhaps compromised by his lack of racing experience, could only finish fifth as Affirmed battled to a narrow victory, the only time in their 10 meetings that the two colts would not finish 1-2.
Nine days later, Alydar won a maiden race at Belmont in easy fashion, and less than two weeks after that he squared off against Affirmed once again in the Great American Stakes, turning the tables to defeat his rival by 3 ½ lengths. After that, the two colts briefly went their separate ways. Alydar enhanced his budding reputation with convincing scores in the Tremont Stakes and the Grade 1 Sapling Stakes, while Affirmed went on a road trip to California and won the rich Juvenile Championship Stakes at Hollywood Park before returning to New York for the Saratoga meet.
At the time – and it generally remains true today – two of the biggest prizes for young runners at Saratoga were the Grade 2 Sanford Stakes and the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes. For Affirmed, both races would be on the agenda; for Alydar, the Sapling was the preferred target over the Sanford, but he would join Affirmed for a third summer showdown in the Hopeful.
As a result, winning the Sanford was a relatively easy task for Affirmed. Under the guidance of young jockey Steve Cauthen, who was riding the colt for the first time, Affirmed casually settled off the pace before rolling past the leaders while drifting out significantly in the homestretch to win by 2 ¾ lengths. Affirmed’s performance could have been a bit more professional, but it was a successful start to a jockey/horse partnership that would culminate with Triple Crown glory.
Thus, the stage was set for an epic battle for supremacy in the Hopeful. It was the last day of the meet, and a massive crowd of 25,361 turned out to witness the showdown between the two star colts. Only three other horses were entered, and Alydar – by virtue of his easy win in the Sapling and his Calumet Farm connections – was the clear favorite at even money, while Affirmed started at 2.30-1.
When the gates opened, Affirmed came out running, while Alydar, per the norm, was slower into stride. But Cauthen quickly made the decision to rate Affirmed off the pace, allowing his mount to settle in third place on the outside as the speedy Sanford Stakes runner-up Tilt Up sprinted to the front through a quick opening quarter-mile in 22 4/5 seconds. Meanwhile, Alydar was reserved in fourth place, four lengths behind the pacesetter but just two lengths behind Affirmed, biding his time and waiting to challenge.
Rounding the far turn, the tension increased as the two favorites simultaneously made their moves. Affirmed, always the handier of the pair, pounced to the lead with a decisive burst of acceleration while Alydar began to wind up on the far outside, advancing powerfully with a run that placed him on even terms with Affirmed as the field turned for home.
But the race was far from over. Tilt Up, cornering well, reclaimed a slight advantage at the top of the homestretch while Alydar lost a bit of ground as he drifted wide off the turn. In between them, Affirmed was still battling gamely with what would eventually be recognized as his trademark determination and “refuse to lose” attitude. Passing the eighth pole, with just 220 yards to run, Affirmed gamely forged to a narrow advantage with Alydar glued to his outside – just a head behind – and Tilt Up still hanging tough along the rail.
It was only in the final sixteenth of a mile that the outcome was finally decided. Tilt Up was the first to tire, fading late to finish fourth in a photo finish behind the late-running Regal and Royal. Then, even Alydar began to weaken, reluctantly conceding the advantage to Affirmed, though refusing to yield entirely. In the final strides, Affirmed edged clear to prevail by half a length, stopping the clock for 6 ½ furlongs in the record time of 1:15 2/5.
“He ran kinder today than the last time,” Cauthen told the Associated Press in a recap story published in the Aug. 28, 1977 edition of the Louisville, Ky. The Courier-Journal. “He didn’t try to run out. He was relaxed on the backstretch and rated well.”
Regarding his mount’s determined performance in the final furlong, Cauthen added: “In the stretch, when he looked the leader in the eye, he just went on. He had a good finishing kick.”
Affirmed and Alydar would face off on three more occasions before the year was over, with Affirmed getting the nod in the Grade 1 Futurity Stakes and Grade 1 Laurel Futurity while Alydar turned the tables in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes. And of course, they ran 1-2 in each of the three Triple Crown races, with Affirmed prevailing by smaller and smaller margins until he fought off Alydar by just a head in the Belmont Stakes.
But it was at Saratoga that racing fans first witnessed a heart-pounding finish between the two colts, an appetizer for the intense rivalry that would eventually land both Affirmed and Alydar in the Hall of Fame. They call Saratoga the “Graveyard of Champions,” but on that particular day, it was a launching point for greatness.