The unforgettable rivalry between 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed and archrival Alydar came alive again at Belmont Park on Saturday afternoon as hundreds of fans lined up for a special autograph session with Hall of Fame jockeys Steve Cauthen and Jorge Velasquez.
With paid admission, fans received a postcard of the photo finish of the 1978 Belmont Stakes, which they could get signed by Cauthen and Velasquez for a $5 donation, with the proceeds going to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund.
The autograph session came exactly two weeks before I’ll Have Another attempts to add the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Stakes on June 9 to his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and become the 12th horse to sweep the series.
Cauthen was just 18 years old when he piloted Affirmed to become the 11th and most recent Triple Crown winner, dogged every step of the way by his indefatigable opponent, Alydar. Known as “The Kid” during his riding days, Cauthen had come to New York as an apprentice during the winter in early 1977, and during one stretch booted home six winners in one day, 23 in six days, and 110 in 46 days. He first rode Affirmed as a 2-year-old at Saratoga Race Course, winning the Grade 2 Sanford on August 17, 1977.
“I had worked Affirmed at the Oklahoma training track before the race, and he didn’t really impress me in his work – he was quite lazy,” said Cauthen, 52, who currently operates a breeding farm in Kentucky. “In the Sanford, he kind of hung on the turn. He won easily enough, and I thought he was a nice little horse. It wasn’t really until his next race, the [Grade 1 Hopeful] when he ran against Alydar that I realized that he was special, a really good horse.”
Velasquez was one of the top riders in New York when he got the mount on Alydar in the fall of 1977 for Belmont Park’s Grade 1 Champagne Stakes, in which he defeated Affirmed by 1 ½ lengths. Although Affirmed was voted the champion 2-year-old, Alydar was favored to win the Derby after posting victories in the Grade 1 Flamingo, Grade 1 Florida Derby and Grade 1 Blue Grass, only to lose by 1 ½ lengths at Churchill Downs. The margin narrowed to a neck in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes was decided by a head after a thrilling mile-long duel to the wire.
“The Belmont was so exciting,” said Velasquez, currently a jockey agent in New York. “They went at it from the mile pole. At the 3/16th pole I thought, ‘I have him now, I’m going to beat him this time.’ I saw Stevie was riding left-handed, so his horse came back and he beat me. It was great for racing, just too bad I had to lose!”
Affirmed and Alydar wound up facing each other 10 times, with the final score Affirmed 7, Alydar 3.
Both jockeys are picking I’ll Have Another to win the 1 ½-mile Belmont and end the 34-year-long Triple Crown drought.
“He’s relaxed, he’s a fighter, and he’s got that desire to win,” said Cauthen of I’ll Have Another. “There’s no reason he won’t get 1 ½ miles as well as anybody else in the race, especially because of his relaxed nature.”
“He’s already proved how good he is,” added Velasquez. “Now, the question is the distance. If he can carry his speed, which I think he will, he should win the race.”