May 18 2013

Triple Crown Memories

It’s absolutely amazing to say this, but the last Triple Crown winner was in 1978.  I was 17 years old when Affirmed beat Alydar to win the 1978 Belmont Stakes.  But, the story of these two great race horses is much more than just one race, or for that matter the Triple Crown.  For me personally, their story is intertwined with my lifelong devotion to the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing.

I was in the grandstand at Saratoga in 1977 when they met in the Hopeful Stakes as 2-year olds.  I had just began “frequenting” the race track with two brother friends, whose father actually knew how to read the Daily Racing Form.  He gave me my first lessons. But, in this race I just followed his lead.  He liked Affirmed, and he made his traditional “Across-The-Board” bet.  I followed suit.  The replay to the race follows:

Amazingly, Affirmed and Alydar met six times as 2-year olds, with Affirmed winning four times, and Alydar winning twice.  Yet, in May of 1978, Alydar was sent off as the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby at odds of 6-5.  However, Affirmed proved best on Derby day winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Alydar in 2nd place.

Two weeks later they met again in the Preakness Stakes.  Affirmed set a pressured pace for the first 1/2 mile, shook free before the top of the stretch, but then Alydar rushed up on his flank, and chased him all the way to the wire, but fell a neck short at the wire.

The exciting finish of the Preakness Stakes had the racing world abuzz with Triple Crown expectations on June 10, 1978.  Determined to give his horse a better “look” at Affirmed, trainer John Veitch decided to remove Alydar’s blinkers for the Belmont Stakes.  Many experts of bloodlines felt that the distance of the Belmont Stakes (12 Furlongs) favored Alydar, and would prove to be the difference in him turning the tables on Affirmed.  But, I remember my friend’s father saying that Affirmed would not let Alydar get by him if they ran 10 miles.

Prior to the start of the race, my heart was thumping.  I was thinking, here’s a chance to watch a Triple Crown winner – and not just any horse, but a horse I had seen in person the previous summer.  Who knew when this would happen again?  I had no way of knowing that 34 years since, it hasn’t happened again.  Here is the replay, and do yourself a favor and turn up the volume.  Chic Anderson’s call is tremendous.

Listen to the enthusiasm in Chic Anderson’s voice as they are in the stretch and he says “The two are heads apart and Alydar’s got a lead!”  A moment later he says “We’ll test these two to the wire!”  I still get tears in my eyes when I watch this race.  And, it is not uncommon (even to this day) to hear me in the backyard, or walking into the track and to hear me chanting “It’s Affirmed on the inside, Alydar on the outside.”

Here are a couple of footnotes to this story that you might find interesting.  Alydar finishing 2nd to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races is a feat that was never achieved before or repeated since.  And, in the end, Alydar has had a more lasting impact on the Thoroughbred racing world, since he went on to be a major success as a stallion; siring champions Easy Goer, Alysheba, Turkoman, Strike the Gold, and many others.

I know I’m not alone in sharing this experience.  I have heard several others say that 1978 was the year they became fans for life.  Who knows, maybe Shug McGaughey and Orb can provide this same kind of experience to fans today.


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