Laz Barrera: Personable Trainer ‘Affirmed’ Greatness in ’78

Trainer Laz Barrera, shown in 1973, won the 1976 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes with Bold Forbes and the 1978 Triple Crown with Affirmed. (BloodHorse Library)

Known for his charisma and colorful quotes, Lazaro Sosa Barrera was considered the Casey Stengel of the racetracks, with a treasure trove of stories and a backstretch philosophy. He recounted them all with his incomparable Spanish accent.

"A lot of people don't understand my English," the Cuban-born trainer once remarked. "If they don't understand me, it doesn't bother me because my horse understands my English very well."

Lazaro sosa barrera

Born: May 8, 1924, Havana, Cuba

Died: April 22, 1991

Champions Trained: Affirmed, J..O. Tobin, It's in the Air, Lehmi Gold, Tiffany Lass

Notable: Inducted into Hall of Fame in 1991; won four Eclipse Awards and three times he led U.S. trainers in total purses

Two years before he would become a household name to sports fans in America, Barrera was mired in a funk. For more than 25 years he had carved out a reputation as one of the top trainers in the nation winning a lot of races at a lot of tracks but never what racing people called a "hundred-grander."

It stung like a burr under the saddle.

Then the spirited colt Bold Forbes blew it all away with a scintillating victory in the 1976 Wood Memorial. Considered a sprinter from Puerto Rico, pundits were sure he wouldn't be able to handle the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance later that spring. Honest Pleasure, the 2-5 favorite, was tabbed a "super" horse. But in the 102nd running it was Bold Forbes who broke on top by a big margin and held off Honest Pleasure in the stretch, victorious by a length. Two weeks later, Bold Forbes sprinted to the early lead in the Preakness but then faded thanks to an injured left hind foot. Odds were stacked against the colt in the Belmont.

Like a number of the great Bold Ruler's offspring, Bold Forbes was strong willed and tended to loaf in solo morning gallops. But if the dark bay colt had a runner to target, his competitive nature took charge. He also mimicked another of his grandsire's traits: his penchant not to rate. So those were the challenges that faced his pair of conquistadores, Barrera and the chirpy jockey Angel Cordero. Barrera prepared Bold Forbes for the Belmont with a series of long gallops in the mornings to build stamina.

"There were days when he was exercising me instead of me exercising him," joked Cordero.

Cordero later remembered a dream he had the night before the 1976 Derby.

"I kept seeing Laz, crying tears of joy in the winner's circle," Cordero said.

The next day, Cordero's dream came true. Bold Forbes came through in the Belmont in a thrilling finish, outdistancing MacKenzie Bridge and Great Contractor in a spirited duel to the wire.

"Never in a million years did I think Bold Forbes would win a mile-and-a-half race," Cordero later recalled. "When you take a horse who can sprint in :22, :44, 1:09 and 1:20, and get him to go a mile and a half, he is one in a million. He didn't want to go that far, but he did. Laz got him to do it."

In a 50-year career, Barrera won four Eclipse Awards, given annually to North America's best trainer. Three times, Barrera led U.S. trainers in total purse earnings and he amassed more than 100 stakes victories in his career. On May 1, 1976, Barrera enjoyed an incredible day: he saddled Bold Forbes to win the Kentucky Derby while Life's Hope won the Illinois Derby and Due Diligence prevailed in the Carter Handicap in New York.

Affirmed (inside) edges Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes. (Bob Coglianese/BloodHorse Library)

Lazaro Sosa Barrera was born in the Marianao section of Havana on May 8, 1924, the ninth of 12 children of a jockey and the daughter of a French missionary. He grew up near Oriental Park in Havana, attending his first race when he was 12. Barrera’s four brothers, Oscar, Luis, Willie, and Angel, all pursued careers as trainers.

As a kid Barrera began working at Oriental Park, a track built on property once owned by his grandfather, walking hots on the backstretch seven days a week for $3. He obtained his trainer's license in the early 1940s before moving to Mexico City. Racing just three days a week, Barrera had enough winners one year to rank second in North America to Willie Molter, the trainer of the legendary Round Table.

"Training there was tough," Barrera remembered. "If you didn't do good for an owner right away you heard the sound of the vans backing up to take the horses away."

High-strung and easily excitable, Barrera pulled up stakes and went to California in 1948 to start anew from the bottom working at smaller tracks. As he showed his training prowess Barrera's business took off. He eventually landed at Louis and Patrice Wolfson's Harbor View Farms in Ocala, Fla., in 1974.

Barrera often said Bold Forbes' Derby victory was his most satisfying, but the Triple Crown sweep by Affirmed was the trainer's showstopper. A flashy chestnut colt with the distinctive splash of white down his face, he was a son of Exclusive Native (Raise a Native) out of Won't Tell You. Another Raise a Native descendant – Alydar – would be his fiercest rival.

Barrera reached the pinnacle of his profession in 1978 in what many horsemen and racing fans regard as the greatest series of Triple Crown races since the Kentucky Derby was established in 1875.

In the Derby, Affirmed held off a thrilling stretch charge by Alydar to win by 1 ½  lengths. Two weeks later, after an even more heart-stopping duel, Affirmed won the Preakness by a neck.

By the time the pair met in the $150,000 Belmont Stakes in June 1978, no one could talk about anything else. The morning of the race Affirmed stood in the doorway of his stall in Barn 47. His ears played to the sounds and movements of the activity all about him with unending curiosity. Patrolling the shedrow, Barrera was confident his colt would again emerge victorious.

"Alydar is a hell of a horse," he said. "I tell you, Native Dancer (sire of Raise a Native) put a lotta class into these two colts. But I can tell you this: as long as Affirmed can see Alydar, he play with him, like a cat play with a mouse."

Trainer John Veitch opted for a new strategy, removing the blinkers on Alydar. For Barrera, everything was status quo. As he tightened the girth on Affirmed in the paddock Barerra smiled broadly, and then hoisted 18-year old Steve Cauthen into the saddle and into the roar of history.

Five horses paraded past the grandstand, then cantered back toward the start. When the gates sprang open Cauthen sent Affirmed right away, positioning him inside. Early on, Affirmed was cruising along comfortably in front with Alydar a few lengths back in third.

Veitch's instructions were simple: "Take the fight to him earlier." Veteran rider Jorge Velasquez did just that as he rolled up alongside Affirmed at the mile marker. Game on. A frenzied crowd was getting what they had expected – one of the greatest showdowns in racing history.

As the pair raced in lockstep from the mile pole to the top of the stretch, Affirmed held on to a narrow advantage. But Alydar kept coming, relentlessly. In the final 50 yards Cauthen switched the whip to his left, hitting Affirmed on the left side. With that final encouragement Affirmed crossed the finish line a head in front. Cauthen rose in the saddle pumping his whip in triumph, the 11th jockey to capture the Triple Crown.

"I don't think we ever see anything like that again," Barrera predicted later. "They were like two kids in the neighborhood who keep coming back and fighting one another – boom! boom! boom! – and they never stop fighting.

"I felt sorry for Alydar. I admired him for his courage. Get him away from Affirmed and he win easy all the time. Affirmed, he want to win more than anything in the world. He had like an antenna when somebody was coming on the outside. His right ear went up and over, letting the jockey know if the jockey didn’t spot the horse."

The final time of 2:26 4/5 made it the third-fastest Belmont in history at the time, despite the slow early pace. Alydar is now recognized as the only horse ever to finish second in all three legs of the Triple Crown. They met once more in the Travers, where Affirmed, ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr., cut off Alydar on the far turn. Affirmed won by a large margin, but he was disqualified with Alydar declared the winner. The final tally was seven wins for Affirmed, five of which had come by a half-length or less, and three for Alydar. Their names are joined at the hip forever.


Barrera with 1973 Vosburgh Handicap winner Aljamin. (Paul Schafer/NYRA)

Affirmed won seven of nine starts as a 4-year-old. He ended his career with a scintillating win in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup, the race that had eluded him a year before. It demonstrated why Affirmed is considered one of the gamest, most consistent, and capable runners in the history of modern racing. Four times during the race, future Hall of Famer Spectacular Bid tried to get by Affirmed, and four times he was beaten back, the final time as the two colts ran for the wire. In the box seats, the Wolfsons, who bred and raced Affirmed, and Barrera embraced.

Cauthen, who rode Affirmed in 16 of his 29 races, said of his favorite horse, "He had speed. He had courage. He never gave up. He just always battled back."

Affirmed was voted Horse of the Year in 1978 and 1979. Other champions trained by Barrera include J.O. Tobin (1978 champion sprinter), It's in the Air (1978 champion 2-year-old filly), Lehmi Gold (1982 champion older male), and Tiffany Lass (1986 champion 3-year-old filly).

Barrera's career was put under a cloud in 1989 when cocaine was found in the urine of his racehorse Endow. The charges were eventually dismissed. Later, he sued the California Horse Racing Board for $25 million. The trainer's career was revived somewhat in 1990 when he saddled his first legitimate 3-year-old contender since Affirmed. Mister Frisky was undefeated until placing eighth in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness.

Barrera died of pneumonia at age 66 on April 26, 1991 at Rio Hondo Hospital in suburban Los Angeles. Cardiopulmonary failure was listed as the cause of death.  He had undergone open-heart surgery in 1979 and 1984. Barrera was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1991.

Fun Facts

  • In 1971, Barrera had his first major win in the U.S. when he sent Tinajero to victory in the Jerome Handicap.
  • A lifelong New York Yankees fan, Barrera likened Affirmed to his favorite ballplayer, Joe DiMaggio.
  • The Derby record book is filled with the family: Laz saddled five starters; his sin, Luis had a horse in the race and others sons also were represented, Albert having finished sixth with Pass the Tab in 1981, the same year his brother, Larry, ran eighth with Flying Nashua.
  • Barrera was credited with bringing 29 Cuban relatives to the United States. Many of them worked in racing.
  • Barrera was elected to Racing Halls of Fame in his native Cuba as well as Mexico and the United States.

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