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Catching up with ... Affirmed

Triple Crown Winner: June 19, 1978

By Kostya Kennedy

Issue date: June 8, 1998

Sports Illustrated Flashback
  Click for larger image June 19, 1978 cover. Heinz Kluetmeier
These are golden years in the life of Affirmed, who 20 years ago became horse racing's last Triple Crown winner and who today reigns on a private acre of plush pastureland at Jonabell Farms in Lexington, Ky. On dry mornings he canters coltishly about, often before admirers. Affirmed is then attentively groomed and served a midday repast of fresh oats, cracked corn and bran, all mixed in sweet molasses. After lunch the horse ambles contentedly, his muscular neck bowed to taste the clover and bluegrass at his hooves.

From mid-February to early July, Affirmed's morning gambols are often delayed. Two or three days a week, he is gently roused in his roomy stall, bathed and led to a rendezvous with a mare. Affirmed has not sired any great thoroughbreds but rather many good ones, including 64 stakes winners. Farmhands review his breeding form with wonder. He approaches mares respectfully, cautiously, lest they buck in defiance. When he senses acquiescence, Affirmed breeds with uncommon swiftness and vigor. "He's very sensitive to the mare -- he has incredible instinct," says Phillip Hampton, Affirmed's stallion manager, "but he's also the most aggressive breeder on the farm."

He was aggressive in his 29 career starts as well, winning 22 times, finishing in the money in every race but one before retiring in 1979. The most memorable victories were those over Alydar in each leg of the Triple Crown in 1978. Affirmed, the second choice, outlasted favored Alydar by 1 1/2 lengths in the Kentucky Derby. In the Preakness the two raced together down the stretch before Affirmed, 18-year-old Steve Cauthen up, won by the length of his chestnut neck. Then came the Belmont, in which Alydar and Affirmed galloped the last mile flank-by-flank, thundering majestically ahead of the field. Alydar seemed to nose forward at the 3/16 pole. Cauthen switched the whip from right hand to left, and Affirmed responded; at the finish line he thrust his head forward, victorious.

This Saturday, Real Quiet will try to match Affirmed's feat. Hampton, who says Affirmed always "gets a little antsy this time of year," hasn't told the horse about Real Quiet's bid. Not that Affirmed would fret. He's a beloved 23-year-old stallion with years of good life ahead. "He's real happy," says Hampton. "And he deserves to be."

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