May 9 2014

Triple Crown Memories – Affirmed vs. Alydar (An Epic Rivalry)

Affirmed vs Alydar

Affirmed vs. Alydar (Photo courtesy of NYRA)

Every sport has it’s great rivalries. Basketball had Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Boxing had Ali and Frazier. And, of course The Yankees and Red Sox baseball rivalry continues to this day. As far as horse racing, clearly in my generation it is Affirmed vs. Alydar.

It’s absolutely amazing to say this, but the last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed back in 1978.  And the story of Affirmed is intertwined with his chief rival Alydar.  Rarely do you hear recollections of Affirmed without Alydar being mentioned to complete the story.

Yet, their rivalry was much more than just their Triple Crown races. Consider this – through the conclusion of the 1978 Belmont Stakes, these two great race horses had met nine times. Affirmed had prevailed in six of those meetings … by a combined total of THREE lengths.

For an entire generation of horse racing fans, their epic battles defined horse racing. For me personally, their story is singularly responsible for my lifelong devotion to the sport of Thoroughbred horse racing. When Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978 I was 17 years old and had been following the sport for less than one calendar year. Seeing these two battle neck n’ neck down the lane of the Belmont Park stretch, witnessing the grit, heart, and soul of two champion horses … well, it just took my breath away. And, to this day, it still does.

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 friends who were brothers. And their father (Earl) actually knew how to read the Daily Racing Form.  A publication that read like ancient hieroglyphics to me at the time.  Earl gave me my first lessons in deciphering this mystic script, and I am forever thankful.

In the Hopeful Stakes,  I decided to just follow Earl’s lead. He liked Affirmed and he made his traditional “Across-The-Board” bet.  I followed suit.  We watched and cheered together as Affirmed held off Alydar’s bold run at him down the historic Saratoga stretch.

Amazingly, by today’s standards, Affirmed and Alydar met six times as 2-year olds, with Affirmed winning four times (by margins of a neck, 1/2 length, a nose, and a neck) and Alydar winning twice (by margins of 31/2 and 11/4 lengths).  Despite Affirmed having the edge in the 2-year old standings, Alydar was sent off as the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby at odds of 6-5 in May of 1978.  Yet, once again, Affirmed proved best on Derby day winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Alydar in 2nd place.

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This article brought to you by Jockey World (Home of Frankie Lovato’s 365 Days of Racing Terms)


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, falling short by a mere neck.

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.  Contrary to that thinking, I recall my friend’s father exclaiming  “Alydar will not let Affirmed get by him if they run 10 miles!”

Prior to the start of the Belmont Stakes, my heart was thumping wildly. 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 35 years later, it has yet to be repeated.  Here is the replay, of what many people (myself included) consider to be the greatest horse race in the history of the sport.  Do yourself a favor and turn up the volume. Chic Anderson’s call is superb.

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 working in the backyard, driving in the car, or walking into the track and chirping out loud “It’s Affirmed on the inside, Alydar on the outside. We’ll test these two to the wire!”

Concerning Alydar, 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.

And lastly, the story of the left-handed whip, clearly visible in the photo at the top of this article.  Up until the Belmont Stakes, Steve Cauthen had only used a right-handed whip on Affirmed.  With Alydar bearing down on him in the final stages of the race, Cauthen switched to the left-handed whip for the first time on Affirmed.  In subsequent interviews with Cauthen, he has repeatedly said that this move seemed to give Affirmed the added burst required to get to the finish line a head in front of Alydar.

In recounting this story, I know that I’m not alone in having been influenced so much by the rivalry of these two great horses.  Countless others have said that 1978 was the year they became racing fans for life. More than 35 years later, the racing world sure could use another Affirmed and Alydar.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

3 comments on “Triple Crown Memories – Affirmed vs. Alydar (An Epic Rivalry)

  1. I started watching racing with Seattle Slew and his Triple Crown victory. However, it was Alydar, and Affirmed who made me a horse racing lifer. Alydar was the horse I idolized. Alydar is my all-time favorite horse. The pair actually met 10 times. Affirmed 7 Alydar 3. Their last meeting was August 19, 1978, at the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Alydar was awarded the race due DQ. Lafitte Pincay, Jr, subbing for a suspended Steve Cauthen, cut into Alydar going into the far turn.

    Anyway, great blog. Racing needa another Alydar and Affirmed for sure.

  2. This was the last Triple Crown winner. Not coincidentally, widespread use of the performance enhancing drug Lasix was thereafter permitted, and there has not been a Triple Crown winner since.

  3. I think you reversed the names in quoting you friend’s father. Presumably he said “Affirmed will not let Alydar get by him if they run 10 miles!”

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