Affirmed: Rare Talent, Rare Competition

Affirmed wins the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup.
Affirmed wins the 1979 Hollywood Gold Cup. (Benoit photo)

Jockey Steve Cauthen was certain of two elements entering the Triple Crown series in 1978. He would be aboard a special mount in Affirmed. They would have to oppose a foe of almost equally rare talent in Alydar.

Or as Cauthen put it, “It wasn’t like beating a bunch in an average year.”

One measure of greatness is surely the level of competition. Affirmed managed to fend off Alydar in seven of their 10 meetings, with two of his losses to that foe coming at age 2, when both of them were still figuring out the game and maturing, and another through disqualification in the Travers Stakes.

In any other year, Alydar had the stuff of a Triple Crown champion, fully capable of sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. But he was star-crossed at birth to be foaled in the same year as Affirmed, who blossomed into a 3-year-old that was the slightest bit better than his archrival in gaining racing immortality as the 11th Triple Crown champion in 1978.

It was 37 years before another 3-year-old has accomplished the feat, only increasing the appreciation for Affirmed and each of the spring classics he fought tooth and nail to win. Affirmed entered the Kentucky Derby as the 2-year-old champion, and he acted the part in a race that went almost exactly as his rider had drawn it up in his mind’s eye.

The son of Exclusive Native was able to sit comfortably in third and launched a powerful move around the far turn when Cauthen, a teenage sensation, signaled it was time to go. As they rolled down the stretch at Churchill Downs, all but carried by the roar of the crowd, Cauthen kept peeking behind him for Alydar, whose belated rush left him 1 ½ lengths behind at the end of the mile and a quarter.

The connections of both horses knew their strategy would have to be different for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness two weeks later at speed-favoring Pimlico Race Course. Cauthen gunned his gleaming chestnut colt to the front from the outset and correctly anticipated that Jorge Velasquez would keep Alydar closer to the pace. Affirmed tended to look for competition when he was on the lead. Cauthen found himself looking around, too – for Alydar.

“Turning into the stretch, he came and we literally flew down the stretch,” he said. With the strength and determination Affirmed conveyed to him, Cauthen never doubted the Preakness would be theirs. The final margin read a neck but the jockey said, “It was as comfortable a neck as you could have in a Triple Crown race.”

Cauthen describes the 1 ½-mile Belmont as “probably the greatest Triple Crown race of all time.” It would be hard to dispute that.

This time, Alydar, with his blinkers removed in an effort to have him keener in the early going, hooked Affirmed during the backstretch run. They raced in tandem – each waiting for the other to blink – through much of the famed “Test of a Champion.”

With three-sixteenths of a mile to go in the marathon that is the Belmont Stakes, Alydar nudged ahead. Cauthen feared the battle might be lost.

“I realized it was going to take everything he had and more,” he said. He resorted to the last tactic left to him. He had never urged Affirmed left-handed. “Now is the time!” he thought.

The element of surprise worked wonders. Affirmed surged as if he was leaving the starting gate anew. He prevailed in a scintillating duel by a nose. His final time of 2:26 4/5 seconds trailed that of only Secretariat and Gallant Man.

Affirmed wins the 1978 Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.
Affirmed wins the 1978 Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown. (Bob Coglianese/Blood-Horse)

Affirmed would go on to be Horse of the Year in 1978 and 1979. He won 22 of his 29 starts with five runner-up finishes and one third-place showing for earnings of $2,887,999 for breeder and owner Louis Wolfson’s Harbor View Farm.

His trainer, Laz Barrera, once proclaimed: “Affirmed is greater than Secretariat, or any Triple Crown winner, because only Affirmed had to face Alydar.”

That conclusion is debatable. But when it came to courage, it can surely be argued that Affirmed was second to none.

Fun Facts

  • Affirmed was the great-great-grandson of Triple Crown winner War Admiral and the great-great-great-grandson of Man o’ War.
  • Affirmed was the first North American Thoroughbred to win more than $2 million.
  • His syndication price of $14.4 million was a record for that time.
  • Affirmed was disqualified as the winner of the 1978 Travers when Laffit Pincay, replacing an injured Cauthen, cut off Alydar.
  • Blood-Horse magazine rated Affirmed 12th in its list of the top 100 U.S. Thoroughbred champions of the 20th century.

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