In Their Own Words: Affirmed Again Denies Alydar to Give Cauthen "The Greatest Day of My Racing Life"
by Tom Pedulla
The New York Racing Association is presenting a weekly series of diaries to help celebrate the 150th Belmont Stakes on June 9 at Belmont Park. "In Their Own Words" features prominent owners, trainers and jockeys as they re-live some of the most stirring moments in the rich history of the "Test of the Champion."
The series opened with trainer Todd Pletcher taking readers behind the scenes to understand the bold decision to enter Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont and his emotions during the scintillating stretch duel with Curlin. Rags to Riches joined Ruthless (1867) and Tanya (1905) as the only fillies to win the marathon.
Following Pletcher's recollections was a diary from Cot Campbell, an innovator in creating racing partnerships. He remembers "the mother of all great moments" for him, when Palace Malice rebounded from a disastrous Kentucky Derby to win the Belmont in 2013.
This third diary featured Ogden Phipps II, a fourth-generation owner and breeder who was recently appointed to NYRA's Board of Directors.
The next edition focused on Marylou Whitney, celebrated as the "Queen of Saratoga" and one of the most prominent women in racing history, who told of the day she sent Birdstone to upset Smarty Jones in 2004.
This week's iteration features Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen, who takes readers along for the ride when Affirmed denied Alydar for the third time in their monumental Triple Crown trilogy in 1978.
Future diaries will feature:
- Trail-blazing jockey Julie Krone shares her emotions in becoming the first female rider to win a Triple Crown race, aboard Colonial Affair in 1993.
- Ahmed Zayat recounts the 2015 romp that allowed the great American Pharoah to end the longest drought in Triple Crown history.
- Ron Turcotte reflects on one of the great athletic feats of all time, human or equine, when Secretariat moved "like a tremendous machine."
Here is the fifth installment:
By Steve Cauthen with Tom Pedulla
The days leading to the 1978 Belmont Stakes were the longest days of my life. I was 18 years old, and I felt as though the weight of the world was on me.
I was caught up in one of the great rivalries in racing history. Affirmed had held off Alydar's big-but-late run to beat him in the Kentucky Derby by a length and a half. We had out-fought Alydar by a neck in a torrid stretch duel in the Preakness.
And now we were a win away from the Triple Crown, and I had some trepidation. Most of it concerned Affirmed's ability to stay a mile and a half. You never know with any horse, but his pedigree raised some doubts in my mind. I would have to count on Laz Barrera's excellent training - and Affirmed's tremendous heart.
It helped that I had the full support of Laz and owners Louis and Patrice Wolfson. They all believed in me and my riding abilities, regardless of my age and my relative lack of experience on a stage that was as big as it gets.
I know Mike Battaglia, a commentator, said, "Steve Cauthen is due to make a mistake." He was voicing what many others were thinking before the Belmont. I had no reason not to trust myself. Still, there was that worry that I might make a mistake that would cost the horse and a team of people who had worked so hard to put us in position to become the 11th Triple Crown champion.
I knew the short field would help. Affirmed and Alydar would be joined by Darby Creek Road, Judge Advocate and Noon Time Spender. For me, though, there one horse to beat. That, of course, was Alydar, a special horse in his own right. I had great respect for him and his jockey, Jorge Velasquez.
I knew going in that Affirmed always enjoyed a tactical advantage against Alydar. He was much more manageable, much less particular about how he ran. When I asked him to sit third in the Derby, he was comfortable doing that. When I asked him to take the early lead in the Preakness, he provided the smooth acceleration I needed.
I knew Alydar did not like running inside. He wanted to be outside and he wanted to be able to make a clear run. And I was pretty sure he wanted no part of being on the lead, something we were about to test.
Our plan for the Belmont was basic. I would send Affirmed to the lead. I would nurse his speed along as well as was humanly possible. And I would count on his love of a fight to get us home against an arch-rival who would again not be easy to deny.
We broke well in the Belmont and quickly assumed the lead. I took such a hold on Affirmed that I was daring Velasquez to go by. He and Alydar wanted no part of that, so a cat-and-mouse game ensued as we crawled along.
Affirmed eased through the opening quarter in a sluggish 25 seconds. We were able to continue to plod along through the first half-mile, coasting in 50 seconds. I knew I needed to conserve as much energy as possible so I continued to keep Affirmed on hold.
I knew that could not last much longer and it did not. As the pace quickened, Affirmed and Alydar left the others in their dust. We rounded the final turn with Alydar in headlong pursuit to our outside before hooking us for the stretch run. The race was on! Affirmed on the inside, Alydar on the outside! Neither great horse willing to yield.
Midway through the stretch, we were in trouble. The mile-and-a-half distance was taking its toll. Nothing was coming easily to Affirmed any more. He was having to work at it. Alydar, meanwhile, still had something left, and he stuck his head in front.
Desperate to respond, I resorted to something I had never done before with Affirmed. I switched the stick from my right to my left hand and began urging him left-handed. I did not know what the response would be. I just knew I had to try something.
Affirmed's response was immediate. He reached for more, drawing even with Alydar and then grinding out a head advantage. "I got you now," I thought.
Affirmed had asserted his superiority against Alydar once more. Alydar had nothing left
to give. Affirmed willed himself to the wire.
I experienced a million emotions as we headed toward the winner's circle and the massive crowd expressed its appreciation. Relief. Elation. Pride. Pride in Affirmed. Pride in myself.
More than anything, I could not wait to share the moment with my parents, Myra and Tex, and my brothers, Doug and Kerry. We looked into each other's eyes, and we all knew what a victory this was for our family. None of this would have been possible without their love and support.
My father, not big on compliments, complimented me that day.
"That was pretty exceptional," he said.
My father died in his sleep in 2009. I will never forget those words. I will never forget him. I will never forget the greatest day of my racing life.