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A firm bid for the Triple Crown

Kentucky Derby winner Affirmed got the challenge he expected from Alydar in the Preakness, but he was more than up to it. Now only the Belmont is left in his quest for U.S. racing’s greatest-and its most elusive-prize.

By William Leggett

Issue date: May 29, 1978

Sports Illustrated Flashback

The sun was warm and powerful, hinting of the longer days to come, tranquil days with mellow moments like those early last Saturday afternoon on the backstretch at Pimlico.

Laz Barrera sat on a metal folding chair in the stakes barn just a few feet from the horse that a few hours later would go out and win one of the more memorable of all Preaknesses. At this moment, though, Affirmed was dozing. "See, he like an old man, nodding off," the trainer said as the horse's eyes closed momentarily and his head drooped.

Several yards away things weren't quite as tranquil. "See down at the other end of the barn, Alydar is being walked around and around," Barrera said. "He's nervous and been walking for 45 minutes or more. Affirmed no walk, he does a doze. Me, I cannot doze. I like to sit here and talk to people who stop by. The days of big races are long ones. You come to the barn at six in the morning and if you win, you don't leave until nine o'clock at night. But you sit here long enough, you might learn something."

By 6 p.m. Barrera, along with millions of others, had learned a little more about this gutty colt named Affirmed. The Preakness of 1978 was a brilliant horse race, one that even surpassed its buildup. With more than a quarter of a mile remaining, Alydar ranged up on the outside, challenging Affirmed with a rush that seemed sure to carry the Calumet colt into the lead. But Affirmed dug in and fought for every inch of ground. Just as he had in the Kentucky Derby two weeks before, Affirmed was getting a superior ride from Steve Cauthen. But Alydar, who had fallen far behind in the Derby while apparently having trouble handling the track, this time was getting good traction when he made his move. The crowd of 81,261, largest ever to watch a sporting event in Maryland, whooped and screamed as the two horses pounded through the stretch. Alydar had lost considerable ground swinging wide to launch his drive, and though he drew to within a head of Affirmed, Alydar couldn't overtake him. In their eight meetings, the two have run more than seven miles against each other and the total distance separating them at the wire is less than three lengths. But Affirmed has won six times, and that surely indicates Affirmed has Alydar's number.

Affirmed, who has won 12 of his 14 races and finished second twice, is raking in money as no horse ever has. By winning the Preakness, he became the youngest equine millionaire ($1,023,227) and he has now won 11 stakes races. If the Harbor View Farm colt, owned by Louis and Patrice Wolfson of Miami Beach, wins the Belmont, he will become the 11th Triple Crown winner and the second in two years. There have never been back-to-back Triple Crown winners.

Throughout the week leading up to the Preakness, it was assumed that it would be a virtual match race between Affirmed and Alydar, with Believe It given an outside chance should the big two knock each other out in a speed duel. Trainer John Veitch had put a sizzling six-furlong workout (1:10 2/3) into Alydar five days before the Preakness, and Believe It had turned in an excellent three-furlong tune-up (34 3/5) on Thursday. Affirmed didn't have a hard workout over the Pimlico track.

"Affirmed doesn't need too much work," Barrera said one morning at his barn. "He only needs to get the feel of the track. He handles all kinds of tracks anyway: Hollywood Park, Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, Saratoga, Belmont Park. Let me say this, I don't know how good Affirmed really is. He's a special horse and a smart one. He's tough and strong and agile. On the day of the Preakness I'll be all nervous and he'll take a nap to get himself ready."

Barrera was right. He was much more nervous than his horse, and part of the reason was jockey Steve Cauthen. "I'm mad at Stevie," he said early Saturday afternoon. "He hasn't even called me yet. I wanted him out in the barn this morning so we could discuss how the race might be run. He should have come here last night. Instead, he come today. When you go out in the paddock to saddle the horse for the race there isn't enough time to talk."

Steve Cauthen wasn't at the stakes barn, but fortunately for Barrera, 12-year-old Gino Alongi, an aspiring jockey, was there to help pass the time. Alongi was dressed in a purple T shirt with the number '1' on its back, green pants, sneakers and a green-and-white golf cap-Norman Rockwell would have loved it-turned backward.

Gino asked Barrera about people who bet large amounts of money at the racetrack. "Some men have good luck," Laz said, "others bad. Bad luck men seem never to get rid of it. I once hear a story about a man named John Smith and he has very bad luck. Even if he bet a horse to show, the horse finish fourth. His friends no want to go to the races with him because he is such bad luck. Then John Smith isn't seen at the racetrack for several days, and his friends get worried. They go around to the hotel he is staying at and John Smith is not around and nobody know where hi is. The friends look all over and then go down to the mortuary and say, 'Maybe you got a man here named John Smith. He's very unlucky. He could be here.' They open the top drawer in the mortuary and see a body, but is not John Smith in the drawer. Number two drawer is not John Smith, either. Nor in three. They pull open drawer four and find John Smith lying there. One of his friends look at the body and say, "John Smith, even here you finish out of the money.'"

While Barrera was back in his barn, the stands and infield at Pimlico were packed and there were long lines at the advance betting windows. Two early arrivals plunked down $60,000 on Affirmed to win.

When Barrera heard of the advance betting, he whistled. "That's crazy," he said. "Anything can happen. Once in Mexico City there was a three-horse entry and the horses figured to finish 1-2-3. People placed big bets on the entry because you got all three horses running for you for the same price. The gate opens up and two horses in the entry slam together and fall down and the third horse stumbles over the two on the ground."

The start of the Preakness wasn't nearly as eventful. Track Reward, a horse entering his third race in 17 days, came out of the gate quickest, but Alydar broke very well and so did Affirmed. At the first turn, Cauthen noticed Track Reward drifting out a little and sent Affirmed into the lead. Even though the track was fast, Cauthen eased Affirmed through the first three-quarters of a mile in 1:11 4/5, the slowest first six-furlong time in the Preakness in six years.

Alydar made his run around the last turn, moving up with a tremendous drive on the outside to come extremely close to Affirmed approaching the top of the stretch. "I think I got to within a head of him," jockey Jorge Velasquez said later, "but no closer." Affirmed just wouldn't be passed."

All the way to the wire the two wonderful 3-year-olds battled, never more than half a length apart-but with Affirmed always ahead. The winner's time for the 1 3/16 miles was 1:54 2/5, which equaled that of the last two Triple Crown winners, Secretariat and Seattle Slew, but was short of Canonero II's track record time of 1:54 set in 1971. Cauthen also had enough horse left to finish the last 3/16 of a mile in 18 1/5 seconds. Only Little Current (1974) ever ran that quickly at the end of a Preakness.

It had been a stunning, dramatic ending, one as crushing for Veitch as it was invigorating for Barrera. An hour and a half after the race, Veitch was seated on the wooden fence outside the stakes barn. "Do I think that Affirmed has broken Alydar's heart because he has beaten him six out of eight times the two have met?" he said in answer to a question. "No. Not with a horse like Alydar. He's just too good. This Preakness was an exceptional race, and Alydar got beaten only by a neck. In racing, necks have a way of changing around from one week to the next, and three weeks from now in the Belmont Alydar could have his neck in front. There isn't a thing in the world for Alydar to be ashamed of."

Woody Stephens, the trainer of Believe It, who came in third, summed up his feeling about running against Affirmed and Alydar. "I tried them in the Derby and Preakness," he said, "and that's enough for me. I'm going to wherever they ain't. In the Derby, Believe It was beaten by less than three lengths; in the Preakness, it was nearly eight. So long, Affirmed. Bye-bye Alydar."

And maybe for everyone but Affirmed and Alydar, bye-bye Belmont.


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