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The 104th Kentucky Derby had been over for two hours and Trainer Laz Barrera was seated in the director's room at Churchill Downs. All sorts of folks were moving about, carrying roses and glasses of champagne. Barrera leaned forward in his chair and clasped his hands.
"People say that Steve Cauthen is 18 years old," he began. "For a while I believed things like that. But the more I watch him ride the more I start to think other things. He must be at least 100 years old, and maybe he don't come from Walton, Kentucky at all. One night when all the racing world was sleeping, a small flying saucer landed out in the desert somewhere and he got off it. He came to the United States from wherever it was with the coolness of Georgie Woolf, the old iceman. And the talent of the master, Eddie Arcaro. And there was some Shoemaker, too.
"Stevie stands by the spaceship and waits three minutes. Horses come from everywhere toward the spaceship. They come out of California and Chicago and New York, and they line up and say, 'Stevie, come be my jockey.' Stevie doesn't say anything for a few minutes, then waves his hand for silence. 'Horses,' he says, 'I will get to you all eventually. Be patient. I am looking for a special horse, one that can win the Kentucky Derby. You there, big chestnut horse, what is your name?' This horse says, 'Affirmed,' and Stevie says, 'Affirmed, I choose you to be my first Derby winner. We will win in 1978 before a huge crowd and I will put up a ride that people will talk about for years to come.' And, of course, Stevie do it."
Cauthen, Affirmed and Barrera won the Kentucky Derby last Saturday by 1� lengths over Alydar, in a race difficult to assess. For a good while, at least until the Preakness is run at Pimlico, racing fans are going to argue over what happened at Churchill Downs. Four days before the race, Louis Wolfson, who owns Affirmed with his wife Patrice, had stood on the Churchill Downs backstretch and made a prediction: "If Affirmed is in front at the top of the stretch," Wolfson said, "you can put your binoculars down because Alydar won't catch him. I realize that sounds presumptuous, but that's the way I analyze the race. We have examined the six meetings between Affirmed and Alydar pretty carefully, and it looks to me like Affirmed digs in when things get toughest. Up to this point in his career, Affirmed has done everything asked of him, but I couldn't call him a great horse yet because the Kentucky Derby hasn't been run. Because Affirmed and Alydar haven't met since last fall, and each has won all its starts this year, people are very decided in their opinions. Well, here's mine. The critical point will come when the horses turn for home, and I think that you will see Affirmed leading at that stage. If so, I have to believe that he will win. But he's running against an excellent field."
For the most part, the field of 11 was excellent, with the winners of all the major prep races somehow avoiding injury and getting to Kentucky. Affirmed, Alydar, Believe It, Esops Foibles, Sensitive Prince and Dr. Valeri had accounted for the Tropical Derby, Florida Derby, Flamingo Stakes, Hollywood and Santa Anita Derbies, Wood Memorial, Fountain of Youth, Hibiscus Stakes and the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies as well as $2,001,151 in purses. Obviously, it was going to be a memorable race, but the tone of it had truly been set last year in the remarkable series of meetings between Affirmed and Alydar in which Affirmed won four of six times. Nevertheless, the bettors made Alydar the 6-to-5 favorite.
"This is no pickin' chicken party," Barrera said before the race. "Believe It should run good and I think that Darby Creek Road might be underrated. Sensitive Prince has won all six of his starts, and because Allen Jerkens trains him the horse must be respected. But I think Affirmed has to beat Alydar, and it could be just as simple as that.
"In any race, luck influences the outcome," Barrera went on, "but Affirmed and Alydar have always dominated their races and left the other horses far behind. A lot of people don't believe that Affirmed can be rated, but they are wrong about that. Affirmed can be rated and will be. Once you get to Kentucky, you have to listen to so much nonsense that your head gets full of bees. All I hear in Kentucky is that Affirmed cannot win the Derby because he was bred in Florida and raced in California this winter. Florida and California are part of the United States of America, aren't they? Affirmed has not been winning his races in China. Before the Derby I am going to give Affirmed a workout that will cause the bees to go bye-bye. Watch it."
Four days before the Derby, Barrera and the Wolfsons climbed into the clocker's stand. The morning was cold and Barrera's hands were dug deep into his pockets. The track was far from lightning fast, but the Exclusive Native colt made it seem so as he worked five furlongs in :59. "It's a perfect work," Barrera told the Wolfsons. "It does two things. First, it puts some speed into him to get him sharp; second, the pressure comes off because the bees will stop buzzing."
"In racing, everybody trains everybody else's horse," Barrera said later. "I train my own and let people say whatever they want. A few days ago I worked Affirmed 1? miles in 1:56[1/5] and people said it was a bad work. Well, it was one of the most brilliant workouts I've seen, because I started him in a place where he would have to go around a lot of turns. You can do anything with Affirmed. On the afternoons of his races, he goes to sleep in his stall when all the other horses are up and about and getting themselves on edge. Affirmed is his own main man. He knows himself and by now I think I know him. When I won the Derby with Bold Forbes two years ago, it was different. Bold Forbes came out of Puerto Rico and I didn't get him until he had raced quite a bit. With Affirmed it is different. I have him all along. I think we haven't seen how good he is yet because you only can tell when another horse challenges him—and no one has challenged him yet this year."
Alydar, too, had moved toward the Derby in perfect fashion. Last Friday morning, his trainer, John Veitch, sat on a cot in Barn 42 and examined the race. "In the draw for post position," he said, "we got No. 10. That's good. I wanted one of the four outside positions because Jorge Velasquez can pick his spot wherever he wants to be and keep Alydar free from trouble. Sensitive Prince drew the outside and that makes me feel that he will have to go to the front. Affirmed drew Post Two, and that would indicate that he must run hard early and commit himself. If Raymond Earl on the rail rushes for the lead—and he has to—then Affirmed might have to run a very fast three-quarters of a mile. I don't think that Barrera likes the No. 2 post for his horse."