Affirmed and Steve Cauthen were on the inside and Alydar and Jorge Velasquez were on the outside and the 65,417 spectators were caught up in the duel between them. All at once, as the two colts bounded for the eighth pole, Alydar surged forward and snatched the lead from Affirmed. They were locked in one of the most dramatic, desperate stretch battles of all time. Never had the American turf witnessed such a sustained rivalry as that between Alydar and Affirmed, and the Belmont was the consummate moment in it.
They raced against each other six times as 2-year-olds in 1977, and in all but one of those meetings they finished one-two, with Affirmed winning four times and Alydar twice. In 1978 they renewed hostilities in the Kentucky Derby; Affirmed won when Alydar's late surge fell a length and a half short. And two weeks later, at the end of a furious stretch duel in the Preakness, Affirmed beat Alydar by a short neck. That led to the 110th Belmont Stakes, with Affirmed racing to become the 11th Triple Crown winner in history.
As much as everyone expected a climactic struggle, no one dared dream that it would turn out as it did. After Affirmed galloped off to an easy lead in the first half mile, running it in a casual 50 seconds flat, Velasquez swung Alydar wide and took out after him. They joined battle at the seven-eighths pole, about 1,500 yards from the wire, and the two never stopped running as one.
They raced at a swift pace, speeding the fourth quarter mile in :23[2/5]. All through the final bend, Alydar gained. No sooner had he grabbed that lead 300 yards from the wire than Affirmed snatched it back, and the two fought on. In the end, Affirmed had a head in front, and one photo of the finish actually showed Affirmed looking back at Alydar, the white of his right eye forward and the eye rolled back, like Moby Dick staring at Ahab lashed to his back.
Except for one brief anticlimax in the Travers Stakes, in which Alydar beat Affirmed on a disqualification, they never met again. By the time the colts were retired at age four, all the racing laurels crowned the brow of Affirmed: 2-year-old of the year in 1977, Horse of the Year and 3-year-old champion in 1978, and Horse of the Year and champion older horse in 1979.
Alydar did not leave the racetrack to such trumpets. Injured near the end of his 3-year-old season, he was never the same horse again, though his last moment of glory was touchingly prophetic. In the 1⅛ mile Nassau County Handicap of 1979, run after a summer rainstorm, Alydar appeared on the track beneath a giant rainbow that crested the Belmont oval. He won by 3¾ lengths, and someone dubbed it Alydar's Rainbow. If there ever was to be a pot of gold for Alydar, he would have to find it at the stud.
Affirmed took up residence in 1979 at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Alydar the same year at Calumet, and the wistfully romantic hope was that the sons and daughters of these two stallions would one day engage in the kind of spirited struggles that had defined their fathers' careers together.
That was not to be. In fact, in a classic bit of irony, it is Alydar, and not Affirmed, who has emerged in the last few years as one of the dominant sires in America, a young giant whose sons and daughters have done so well that today it costs as much as $350,000 for a breeder to send a mare to Alydar, the money paid with no guarantee in many cases that she will even conceive. Alysheba is, of course, Alydar's latest son to shine. And on Saturday at Belmont, a son of Alydar may become the 12th Triple Crown winner—the first, irony of ironies, since Affirmed.
Unlike his rival, Alydar stamped his progeny from his first crop of foals, announcing immediately that he would be a force at the stud. Among his daughters of 1981 were Althea, voted the 2-year-old filly champion in 1983 and ultimately the winner of $1,275,255 at the track, and Miss Oceana, the winner of six major stakes before she retired with earnings of $1,010,385. But certainly the best of his offspring, in sheer ability, was the brilliant Turkoman, the winner of $2,146,924 and America's champion older horse in 1986. In Principal American Racehorses of 1986, their definitive study of last year's leading thoroughbreds, authors Andrew Beyer and Bill Oppenheim concluded, "At classic distances, Turkoman was the best American racehorse of 1986."
Affirmed has not sired a horse even remotely approaching Turkoman or Althea or Alysheba in ability, and his stud fee stands at $50,000, often with no guarantee. So far, his progeny have won $4,165,814. He has sired some very useful horses, for example An Empress and Persevered, but he has yet to father the winner of a Grade 1 stakes in America. Alydar's offspring, on the other hand, have earned close to $12 million.