Been around racing 50 years," Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens said after the Belmont last Saturday, "and I've seen dawn come up over a lot of tracks. People will tell you about the great races between Citation and Noor out in California in the early 1950s, and the race between Ridan and Jaipur in the Travers at Saratoga in 1962. Great races. But Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont? Probably the best horse race that's ever been run. I'll look at it again and again anytime I'm fortunate enough to get the chance. I'll raise a glass to 'em while I'm watchin' the replays and, damn, I'll root—come on Affirmed, come on Alydar. Come on Cauthen, come on Velasquez. Whatever it is that these two horses have cannot be bought or manufactured. It's the greatest act horse racing has ever had. I hope it never ends."
Imagine a marvelous afternoon at Belmont Park and a horse named Affirmed going after the Triple Crown. In 15 lifetime starts he has lost only twice, both times to Alydar at Belmont. Affirmed is ridden by 18-year-old Steve Cauthen, the wunderkind of race riding; Alydar has Jorge Velasquez on his back, and Velasquez is riding better than ever. With a mile remaining in the 1�-mile race, Affirmed and Alydar begin racing as a team. Affirmed is on the inside, Alydar on the outside. Everyone in the crowd of 65,417 knows that Affirmed is trying to become the 11th winner of the Triple Crown. Everyone also knows that these two have met eight times, with Affirmed winning six. Once they hook up, however, all this is put out of mind and the rooting and shouting begin. And the wondering: which horse will crack?
As they sweep around the final turn, it looks as if Alydar has poked his nose in front and is about to pull away from Affirmed. Cauthen knows Affirmed is tiring and that the finish line is a long [3/16]ths of a mile away. Suddenly he switches his whip from his right hand to his left. In all the times Cauthen has ridden Affirmed he never has hit the horse lefthanded. When Cauthen whips Affirmed the horse responds quickly and pushes his nose back in front. With 10 yards left in the race, the two horses are straining and nearly dead even. They are also running the fastest closing mile (1:36[4/5]) in the history of this toughest of America's classic races. At the end Affirmed's head is in front of Alydar's, and as the two jockeys rise in their saddles beyond the finish line Velasquez yells over to Cauthen, "Stevie, congratulations." Cauthen yells back, "Georgie, thank you. It ain't been easy."
Nothing between Affirmed and Alydar has ever been easy. Their rivalry is so intense, so close that it transcends what is supposedly racing's best show, the Triple Crown. Years from now people will not only recall that Affirmed earned the toughest Triple Crown ever contested but that Alydar was the first horse to run second in all three legs. Belmont winners usually romp home "eased up" after outdistancing their opponents. Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont by 31 lengths; Count Fleet finished off his Triple Crown by waltzing home 25 lengths in front. Citation won the Belmont by eight, Seattle Slew by four, Sir Barton by five. Very few people, however, can recall who was second to Secretariat (Twice A Prince), Citation (Better Self), Count Fleet (Fairy Manhurst), War Admiral (Sceneshifter) or Whirlaway ( Robert Morris). Everyone will remember that Affirmed had to beat Alydar.
"When people think about the Belmont Stakes of 1978," says Trainer Phil Johnson, "they will say they saw it and will never forget it. That's fine. I'll remember it another way. Affirmed and Alydar really started fighting each other last August in the Hopeful at Saratoga. That's when racetrackers started thinking of the two horses as something special. The way Laz Barrera trained Affirmed and John Veitch trained Alydar is beyond belief. Anyone who expects that two horses can run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and then come back in the Belmont and run head to head for the final mile is expecting too much. But they did it, didn't they? I don't know how they did it."
Three weeks before the Belmont, John Veitch was serving as a judge at a showing of yearling thoroughbreds at Timonium racetrack outside Baltimore. Less than 24 hours earlier Affirmed had beaten Alydar by a neck in the Preakness, and as Veitch moved around people came to him and shook his hand. Nearly everyone said the same thing: "Alydar is such a great horse, but he can't get by Affirmed. It must be frustrating, but I guess you have to keep trying."
Veitch was polite to everyone who shook his hand, but as he was driving back to New York he began to think about what he might do to beat Affirmed. "I've got to try something," he said. "I know that Alydar can beat Affirmed. He did it twice, and both times were at Belmont Park. I'm going to take the blinkers off Alydar in the Belmont and maybe that will help. I think if I take them off, Alydar will be more alert and able to use his speed to get closer to Affirmed early. People are going to say it's a desperation move, but I've got to do something. I'm leaving myself wide open to criticism if Alydar runs a bad race with the blinkers off. Also, if he beats Affirmed with the blinkers off, everyone will say, 'Why didn't you take them off earlier? You could have won the Triple Crown.' "
When Alydar was led into the paddock before the race, the large crowd around the walking ring let out whoops of encouragement. A banner made up in the devil's red and blue colors of Calumet Farm was raised: ALYDAR, it read, FORGET THE PAST. TODAY IS YOUR DAY. As Affirmed entered the crowd applauded. Once Cauthen and Velasquez were hoisted onto their horses the crowd applauded both.
Alydar, as he usually does, balked at entering the starting gate. Affirmed walked into the gate like a perfect gentleman. When the gate opened, Affirmed went right to the lead and Cauthen moved his horse toward the rail. The maneuver, like most of Cauthen's, was quick and subtle. Even though Alydar had broken inside Affirmed, Cauthen had a tactical advantage. Once on the lead, Cauthen was able to slow the pace. The first half mile was run in :50. In the 110-year history of the race only three opening half miles were slower. "I wasn't worried about any other horse in the race," Cauthen said later. "I knew that Alydar would come up and we would fight it out. I didn't think we'd have to fight it out for a mile, but with Affirmed and Alydar it always seems to turn out that they fight for every inch. I wanted the first part of the race to be slow because the last part was going to be very fast." Indeed, Affirmed's time was 2:26[4/5], 2[4/5] seconds off Secretariat's 1973 record and the third-fastest Belmont in history.
As the two horses entered the stretch the other three starters—Darby Creek Road, Judge Advocate and Noon Time Spender—were far up the track. Cauthen kept working on Affirmed, at times his hands moving into his mount's mane, his back parallel to the ground. Velasquez was riding Alydar beautifully, his whip stinging the horse's right side. Until the final seconds the race was in doubt, but Alydar just couldn't pass.