Affirmed: The Greatest Rivalry
By Ashley Herriman
Given that he was only the 11th – and, to date, last – Triple Crown winner in history, one might think that Affirmed’s name could stand alone.
But, since their epic rivalry captured America’s attention beginning as two-year-olds in 1977, Affirmed has always been associated with Alydar.
Affirmed, a striking chestnut colt by Exclusive Native (Raise a Native) out of Won’t Tell You, won his first meeting with Alydar in the Youthful Stakes at Belmont in June 1977, almost exactly a year before their historic showdown in the 1978 Belmont Stakes. Alydar finished 5th in the Youthful, revealing little of the competition to come.
In their next race, Alydar finished a solid 3 ½ lengths ahead of 2nd place Affirmed in the Great American Stakes at Belmont, and the rivalry began to take shape. The pair met four more times during their two-year-old seasons, and Affirmed bested Alydar in three of those contests, though they always finished one-two.
After taking different paths to the Derby, the two horses met again on the first Saturday in May. Again, Affirmed defeated Alydar, by a length and a half with 18-year-old Steve Cauthen in the irons. In the Preakness, Affirmed won again, this time only by a neck. By the time the pair met in the Belmont in June 1978, no one could talk about anything else.
“It’s only been two horses so far,” Affirmed’s trainer, Lazaro Barrera told The New York Times the week before the Belmont. “All the time, since last year, it’s only two horses. Affirmed and Alydar. Nothing has changed.”
Nothing had changed, and indeed, there were a lot of similarities to begin with. Both were chestnuts, both homebreds descended from Native Dancer (Affirmed’s great-grandsire, Alydar’s grandsire). The two horses were even conceived in the same Kentucky breeding shed, though Affirmed was considered a Florida-bred because he was foaled in the Sunshine State.
The morning of the Belmont, Barrera was confident his colt would again emerge victorious.
“Alydar is a hell of a horse. I tell you, Native Dancer 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.”
Alydar’s connections were determined not to allow that scenario to play out again. In the Belmont, they opted to race the colt without blinkers and while they planned to do nothing to disrupt the colt’s usual racing style, trainer John Veitch told the Daily Racing Form the week of the race that he thought “Alydar may lay closer to the pace in the Belmont and put more pressure on Affirmed.”
Affirmed drew post three for the Belmont, Alydar post two. Cauthen’s instructions were to send Affirmed up from the start and position him inside, and all went as planned. A quarter mile into the race, Affirmed was loping along comfortably in front with Alydar back in third. The early pace was slow and Alydar’s veteran rider Jorge Velasquez went after Affirmed, bringing Alydar right alongside of him at the mile marker.
While the crowd had expected a duel, what they got was one of the greatest showdowns in racing history. The two horses matched strides from the mile pole to the top of the stretch – while Affirmed held on to a narrow advantage, Alydar kept coming, relentlessly pursuing his rival.
Because the horses were so close, Cauthen had to switch his whip from his right hand to his left and hit Affirmed on the left side. Many believe the switch may have given the colt the final encouragement he needed – Affirmed crossed the wire with a head in front of his rival.
In winning the Triple Crown, Affirmed set several records – it was the first time the Triple Crown had been won in consecutive years (Seattle Slew won it in 1977). The final time of 2:26 4/5 made it the third-fastest Belmont in history, despite the slow early going. When he started in the Belmont, Affirmed had won all six of his three-year-old starts so far – his only losses in 15 career outings to that point came as a two-year-old when he ran second to Alydar.
After the Belmont, the rivalry did not die. Both Affirmed and Alydar independently won stakes at the 1978 Saratoga meet, then met again in the Travers. Though Affirmed finished first, he drifted in front of Alydar in the stretch, causing Velazquez to take Alydar up abruptly. After an inquiry, Affirmed was taken down and Alydar placed first.
Affirmed was named horse of the year in 1978, but the end of his three- year-old season was disappointing. He finished off the board in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup and began his four-year old campaign with show and place finishes in his first two starts. After that though, Affirmed came back to display much of his previous dominance, winning seven of nine starts as a four-year-old and ending his career with a win in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup, the race that had eluded him a year before.
After a respectable stud career – though rival Alydar is widely considered to have sired more successful offspring – Affirmed was euthanized in 2001, at 26.
Click here to view the 1978 Belmont Stakes results chart