Native Dancer: The Nearly Perfect Grey Ghost of Sagamore
The long and glorious history of horse racing is filled with the tales of racing’s many champions.
Then there’s Alydar.
Alydar ranks as one of the most famous racehorses of the last six decades. He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1989. Yet he was never a champion, for one exceptional reason.
As talented and superb as Alydar may have been, he could never outrun the shadow of Affirmed.
Forty-plus years after their last epic duel, the names of Affirmed and Alydar are forever linked, with Alydar in the secondary position.
Alydar did indeed have his day, beating Affirmed on three occasions, including once by disqualification.
But in their three most famous meetings – the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes – Affirmed defeated his persistent rival each time, becoming the 11th Triple Crown champion.
"The American people love an underdog," said Alydar’s trainer, John Veitch, in a 1998 Philadelphia Inquirer story. "He is the only horse ever to finish second in all three [Triple Crown] races, and in doing so he immortalized himself."
Alydar seemed destined for greatness from birth. He was a homebred son of Raise a Native from the On-And-On mare Sweet Tooth, owned by Calumet Farm, one of the sport’s most famous stables. Veitch, his trainer, had resurrected Calumet’s fortunes and returned it to national prominence.
The promise Veitch saw in Alydar was reflected in his placement of Alydar in a stakes for his career debut. Alydar ran in the Youthful Stakes at Belmont Park on June 15, 1977 but got off to a slow start and wound up fifth behind a colt named Affirmed.
Entered next in a maiden special weight race, Alydar confirmed Veitch’s belief in him, winning by 6 ¾ lengths over Believe It.
In his third race, Alydar returned to stakes competition and was sent off as a 4-5 favorite in the Great American Stakes. He breezed to a 3 ½-length win, this time avenging his loss to Affirmed.
Affirmed and Alydar would eventually meet 10 times and in the months ahead the tide would turn. After Alydar won the Tremont and then Grade 1 Sapling, he came into the Hopeful at Saratoga as an even-money favorite. Again Affirmed was his main rival, but this time, when the two horses matched strides in the stretch, it was Affirmed who edged away late to win by a half-length.
The two met again in the seven-furlong Futurity at Belmont and again were locked in a furious stretch duel. Once more Affirmed prevailed, this time by a nose.
Round four came in the mile Champagne at Belmont, which was contested at a one-turn mile over a muddy track. On this day, Alydar was the victor, drawing off to a 1 ¼-length victory.
Though Affirmed had a 3-2 lead in the rivalry, Alydar’s victory at a mile gave off an indication that he would be better suited than Affirmed by the longer, two-turn stakes that awaited them. That thought disappeared when the two squared off around two turns in the Laurel Futurity. A half-mile into the race, the two were locked together and they remained that way until the end of the mile and a sixteenth Grade 1 stakes when Affirmed reached the wire a neck ahead of the Calumet colt.
A runner-up finish to Believe It in the Remsen ended Alydar’s 2-year-old campaign, but at 3 he returned better than ever. After an allowance win at Hialeah, he reeled off wins in the Flamingo Stakes and Florida Derby and then romped to a 13-length win the Blue Grass Stakes.
Everything was in place for another duel with Affirmed, this time in the classic setting of the Kentucky Derby. Affirmed had prepped for the "Run for the Roses" on the West Coast with wins in the Hollywood Derby, Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe Stakes, but the 1 1/4-mile distance seemed to favor Alydar and he was sent off a 6-5 favorite with Affirmed the 9-5 second choice.
The Derby, though, proved no different than their previous clash. Alydar fell 17 lengths off the lead in the early stages of the Derby and though he launched a determined stretch bid, he settled for yet another runner-up finish to Affirmed, losing by a length and a half.
In the Preakness, Alydar’s camp vowed to keep their horse closer to the lead and in leg two of the Triple Crown Alydar was just two lengths behind the pacesetting Affirmed at the quarter pole. Alydar and jockey Jorge Velasquez drew within a half-length of Steve Cauthen and Affirmed at the eighth pole but once again was unable to get past the Harbor View Farm colt and lost by a neck.
As much as races like the Preakness, Laurel Futurity, Belmont Futurity and Hopeful were spectacular duels, the greatest and most famous of their wars came in the Belmont Stakes. At the 1 1/2-mile distance, Alydar would put Affirmed to a supreme test. As a crowd of 65,417 roared its approval, Velasquez moved Alydar alongside Affirmed as the horses reached the start of Belmont Park’s lengthy backstretch.
They remained locked together the rest of the way in what became an unforgettable match race.
“Now we got a speed duel beginning to develop,” track announcer Chic Anderson proclaimed in his call of that June 10, 1978 race. “On the inside Affirmed, on the outside Alydar. And those two are letting out all stops. They are going on out together."
As the two turned for home they were side by side and for a brief moment in midstretch Alydar appeared to grab a very slim lead, but Affirmed never wilted. He dug in tenaciously along the rail and edged in front in the final yards to win by a head in a race for the ages.
“Initially, after the races were over, particularly the Belmont, I replayed them very often in my mind,” Veitch told Daily Racing Form in a 2012 interview. “I talked not only to Jorge, but also to my father [Sylvester Veitch], who was alive at the time. I went over my training regimen to see if there was something I did wrong or overlooked. I went over it with Charlie Rose (assistant and exercise rider) and Clyde Sparks (groom), basically trying to see if I was to blame. Really, the only thing I could never overcome was that we could never get Alydar to change leads in his races. In training in the mornings, he changed perfectly. At Hialeah, I’d take him up there in the three-eighths [mile] chute and do figure-eights with him like a skater would do, and he would change leads like a ballerina. But in the running of the race, even for a mile and a half in the Belmont, he’d run all the way around there on his left lead. I never did figure it out.”
Though Triple Crown glory belonged to Affirmed, Veitch remained convinced Alydar could defeat Affirmed and pointed to the Travers at Saratoga for another crack at him.
In between Alydar won the Arlington Classic by 13 lengths and then, in his most impressive triumph, he faced older horses for the first time and won decisively by 10 lengths in the Whitney Handicap at the Spa over a field that included J.O. Tobin, who a year earlier had handed 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew his first career defeat.
The Travers attracted only a field of four, making it an unlikely source for the trouble that unfolded. While Affirmed battled for the lead with overmatched longshot Shake Shake Shake, jockey Laffit Pincay, riding Affirmed for the first time, steered toward the inside as Alydar was moving up along the rail. Pincay cleared Shake Shake Shake then veered in so sharply that Velasquez had to take up sharply on Alydar, costing him several lengths. Affirmed spurted clear and held Alydar safe in the stretch by a length and a quarter.
Saratoga’s stewards then stepped in and awarded the victory to Alydar, disqualifying Affirmed to second for interference.
Victory may have gone to Alydar in the 10th meeting of the two bitter rivals but it was bittersweet.
It was also their last meeting.
Alydar was supposed to face Affirmed and Seattle Slew in the Marlboro Cup, but a fractured coffin bone in his left front foot ended his season before that. At 4, he never regained his best form. Though entered in five stakes, he won only the Grade 3 Nassau County and after a third-place finish in the Suburban he was retired in July 1979 after suffering a fractured sesamoid bone in his right hind foot.
Years later, Alydar finally eclipsed Affirmed … in the breeding shed. He quickly became one of the industry’s leading sires, yet even that had a sad aspect of unfilled potential tied to it as he died in 1990 after shattering his right leg in his stall.
There was speculation that Alydar was killed in order to collect on Calumet’s insurance policy but charges were never filed.
The legacy that Alydar left behind, though, could not be tarnished. He sired 10 champions and was the leading sire in North America in 1990. His offspring included Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner Alysheba, Kentucky Derby winner Strike the Gold and Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer.
He also earned a permanent spot in racing lore. It may not be as a champion, but it was about as close as one could ever come.
- Alydar is the only horse to finish second to a Triple Crown winner in all three legs of the series.
- Aside from five meetings with Affirmed, Alydar was favored in all of his races except the 1979 Carter Handicap.
- Four of Affirmed's seven victories over Alydar were by a neck or less.
- Believe It, who was second to Alydar in Alydar’s maiden win and defeated him in the Remsen, was third in both the 1978 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.