Alydar was fighting for redemption - at least in the eyes of his fans - and for a heartbeat, it appeared he might get it.
“If I’m not mistaken, my horse got his head or a half-length in front turning for him,” Jorge Velasquez, who rode Alydar, recalled recently.
“Alydar got his head in front of me for a split second at the three-sixteenths pole,” remembered Steve Cauthen, Affirmed’s jockey.
Affirmed was outside of Alydar and had him pinned on the rail.
“I had to do that,” Velasquez said. “I was trying my best to win the race. I was race riding.”
Cauthen, then 18 and known as “The Kid,” knew a little something about race riding, too.
“Then I hit him left-handed,” Cauthen said. “I had never done that before, and he responded.”
“He just dug in,” said Patrice Wolfson, whose husband, Louis, owns Harbor View Farm.
With a crowd of 65,417 roaring, Affirmed, with Cauthen wearing the flamingo, black and white of Harbor View, strained toward the Triple Crown. Alydar, with Velasquez garbed in the devil’s red and black of Calumet Farm, fought every step of the way to deny him.
At the wire, it was Affirmed by a head.
“Affirmed was just full of guts,” Patrice Wolfson said. “Nothing bothered him. The rider was the same way.”
Affirmed was the 11th Triple Crown winner. And the last.
Next Saturday, Silver Charm will try to become the 12th to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Since Affirmed, four 3-year-olds have won the Derby and Preakness, only to fail in the Belmont. The last was Sunday Silence in 1989.
This Belmont also will feature a rivalry - Silver Charm vs. Free House. Free House won two of three meetings against Silver Charm in California this year, including the Santa Anita Derby, but he finished third in the Kentucky Derby and was second by a head in the Preakness.
The Affirmed-Alydar rivalry began when they were 2-year-olds and became racing legend.
In 1977, they met six times in the East. Affirmed won the Youthful, with Alydar fifth, on June 15 at Belmont Park, but they would run 1-2 in their next nine meetings. In their other 2-year-old matches, Affirmed won the Hopeful at Saratoga, Futurity at Belmont and Laurel Futurity at Laurel; Alydar won the Great American and Champagne at Belmont.
Trainer Laz Barrera took Affirmed to California to get ready for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer John Veitch chose the Florida-Kentucky route to the Derby for Alydar.
Affirmed opened his 3-year-old campaign by winning an allowance race at Santa Anita, and followed with wins in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby at Hollywood Park, before heading for Kentucky. Alydar arrived in Louisville after wins in the Flamingo at Hialeah, Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Blue Grass at Keeneland.
Alydar, 7-5 to 9-5 for Affirmed at post-time, was the sentimental favorite at Churchill Downs, being a Kentucky bred. Affirmed was bred in Florida but, with Cauthen from Walton, Ky., had a local connection.
In trying to explain Cauthen’s poise and ability, Barrera, who died April 25, 1991, said it was as if he “came from another planet on a flying sausage.”
In the Triple Crown races, Alydar was always chasing Affirmed.
Affirmed was third in the Derby, 4 lengths off the pace with a half-mile to go in the 1-1/4-mile race, while Alydar was eighth, 12 lengths off the lead. Affirmed had the lead at the eighth pole, and the stretch-running Alydar fell 1-1/2 lengths short of catching him.
In the Preakness, Alydar was closer to the pace, fourth and only 2 lengths back of first-place Affirmed after three-quarters of a mile. He got to within a half-length with an eighth of a mile to go, but was still a neck behind at the finish of the 1-3/16 miles.
When they got to New York, the attention from reporters was intense, and the crowd on race day was the fifth-largest in 128 Belmonts.
Cauthen and Barrera planned nothing new for the 1-1/2-mile Belmont. Veitch, however, decided to race Alydar without blinkers for the first time, looking for a change that would help put the colt in the winner’s circle. He also wanted Alydar to be closer to the lead before the stretch run.
Affirmed went right to the lead, but after the first half-mile, Alydar was second, a length behind. It would be the farthest he was behind his arch rival the entire race, but it wasn’t where Velasquez wanted to be.
“I remember it was a very slow pace,” he said. “I had to ask Alydar earlier than I wanted to because Affirmed was just galloping.”
“I was very comfortable to be able to go the first half (mile) in 50 (seconds),” said Cauthen.
The only slower opening halves in the last 25 Belmonts would be 50-1/5 each by Temperence Hill in 1980 and by Thunder Gulch in 1995. But if the race started slowly, it finished in a rush.
Affirmed’s winning time of 2:26-4/5 was slower only than Secretariat’s 2:24 at the time. It since has been bettered at 2:26 by both Easy Goer in 1989 and A.P. Indy in 1992.
In the 1979 American Racing Manual, Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form wrote: “It was one of the greatest races run, anywhere.”
Affirmed and Alydar would meet once more, with Affirmed finishing ahead of his rival in the Travers on Aug. 19, 1978, at Saratoga. Alydar, however, got the win when Affirmed was disqualified for interference and placed second.
Both raced as 4-year-olds and then were retired to stud. Affirmed still stands at Jonabell Farm in Lexington. Alydar was euthanized after breaking a leg in his stall at Calumet in Lexington on Nov. 15, 1990.