When news broke that the great thoroughbred Affirmed had been euthanized last Friday at 26, an inimitable scene from the 1978 Belmont Stakes played over and over, like a grainy film, in the mind's eye. A pair of coppery chestnuts dueling nose-to-nose in the late afternoon sun: Affirmed on the rail and Alydar, runner-up to Affirmed in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, clinging to him on the outside. As they swept toward the eighth pole, a roar went up from the crowd when Alydar appeared to thrust his nose in front. Affirmed looked beaten, but he was only shifting gears. He battled through the last 220 yards—his right eye rolling back to watch his rival, like Moby Dick peering back at Ahab lashed to his side—and won by a head.
Affirmed, the 11th Triple Crown winner, came to flower near the end of racing's Golden Decade, the 1970s, which had already witnessed Secretariat's tour de force in the '73 Triple Crown races, Forego's towering presence as a three-time Horse of the Year from '74 to '76 and Seattle Slew's dash to the '77 Triple Crown. Affirmed, however, sealed the greatness of that generation. He won 14 Grade 1 stakes races and more than $2.3 million. If he lacked Secretariat's brilliance at the classic distances and Slew's unearthly speed, he had the ability, temperament and tenacity to run with any field. He was tall and elegant, but with a hickory constitution and a terrier's courage. He won all six photo finishes in his career, five of which were against Alydar.
Affirmed never got the bouquets he deserved. Indeed, the more regally bred Alydar, a product of the finest racing blood at the storied Calumet Farm, was always the more popular of the duo. But Affirmed made an indelible mark on the sport, and in his own unforgettable way—from the eight pole to the wire in the Belmont Stakes—he crowned his decade as the richest and most competitive in the history of horse racing.