Of necessity, thoroughbred racing fans are a hardy bunch. Nevertheless, a string of upsets can cause tremors, and at approximately 5:15 p.m. last Saturday the tremors were concentrated at Santa Anita.
Two of the sport's biggest stars, 18-year-old Steve Cauthen and Triple Crown winner Affirmed, were both in massive, and puzzling, slumps. Cauthen had ridden 75 consecutive races without once finding his way into the winner's circle, and Affirmed had somehow managed to run in five stakes races dating back to August of 1978 without winning one. The impossible had occurred. Normally, Californians are the most docile of racegoers, but when Cauthen and Affirmed finished second to Darrel McHargue and Radar Ahead in Saturday's $114,200 San Fernando Stakes, a chorus of boos greeted them.
Until 90 minutes before the San Fernando, the first $100,000 race of the California season, Radar Ahead wasn't even going to run. On race morning Gary Jones, Radar Ahead's young trainer, looked at the track and said, "My horse likes a fast track and there is no way this track is going to be fast by post time. The chances are 99.9% we'll scratch." Jones felt that there was no way the track would get enough sun in the next six hours to dry the surface sufficiently for Radar Ahead to handle it. "We wanted to run against Affirmed in the San Fernando," Jones said. "Then we wanted to come back again in the Strub two weeks from now. We've waited six months for this opportunity, and now the weather has caused us to blow everything."
As scratch time approached, Jones picked up a telephone and called track foreman Ron Moore. "Ron," Jones asked, "what does the long-range weather forecast look like?"
"Very bad," said Moore. "Three storms are expected in this area in the next week. You won't be able to count on anything." Jones looked at Radar Ahead's owner, Sidney Vail. "Let's run," Jones said. "We're in a box. Even if Radar Ahead runs poorly, the race might help get him ready for the Strub. We're out of options. I don't want to run on this kind of racetrack and neither do you, but I think we have to."
Vail concurred, and Radar Ahead, who won $250,300 as a 3-year-old last year, became a convincing winner, beating Affirmed by 2� lengths in 1:48. But as the race ended, there were more boos for Cauthen and Affirmed than applause for Radar Ahead and McHargue.
Cauthen could not be blamed for Affirmed's defeat. The colt got off well, dropped back of the pace set by Little Reb and Radar Ahead, and just before reaching the top of the stretch in the 1?-mile race, began what looked like a winning run. But suddenly he flattened out. Affirmed ran just enough to make virtually everyone believe that he was capable of winning, but could not muster the verve to carry off the kill. "He didn't seem like himself," Cauthen said later. "He only ran in spots. I can usually make him do whatever I want him to by just moving my hands. On the middle of the last turn I thought we might win it, but he didn't respond. He didn't seem to like the track at all. I don't know what's wrong."
Affirmed's loss was his second in two weeks. Since defeating Alydar in such dramatic fashion in the Triple Crown races last spring, Affirmed has become an enigma. He last won in early August at Saratoga when he defeated Sensitive Prince in the Jim Dandy Stakes after enduring tremendous punishment in the last quarter of a mile. Subsequently, he led Alydar to the wire in the Travers but lost it on a foul claim. Then he lost the Marlboro Cup to Seattle Slew; the Jockey Club Gold Cup to Exceller; and this year's Malibu to Little Reb when he didn't respond in the stretch. Five consecutive losses for a Triple Crown winner are as bewildering as they are unprecedented.
Like everyone else, Laz Barrera was struggling for answers last weekend—about his horse and his jockey. "Affirmed ran only in spots," the trainer agreed. "It was a confusing race. There's nothing wrong with him; he isn't hurting. He'll run in the Strub. Stevie, I'm worried about. Racetracks are tough, cruel places. Maybe Stevie needs a little change, to go someplace else for a while, to get out of this slump. But I can't tell anybody what to do. We've had many more good times together than bad. But do you know what racetrack people do fastest? Bury others."
Last Sunday, Barrera wasn't saying whether Cauthen would ride Affirmed in the $200,000 Strub Feb. 4.