Affirmed was both the focal point and cement that would bind my husband’s and my wonderful 35-year relationship. From the outset of our marriage in Miami in 1972, we dearly enjoyed driving up to spend time at Harbor View Farm near Ocala. It was there, in 1975, that we first noticed a flashy little chestnut colt that loved to show his heels to his contemporaries.
We watched, as time went by, how the colt became the leader of the pack, rough-housing with his playmates, yet coming over to the fence were we stood to gently nuzzle his admiring owners. Despite our own personal, individual good fortune previously, nothing could have prepared us for the Affirmed years!
Harbor View Farm exploded on the racing scene not long after my late husband, Lou, first entered racing by buying a handful of modest horses in 1958. Raise a Native, purchased at the 1962 Saratoga yearling sale for $39,000, went undefeated in 1963 and was named 2-year-old co-champion male despite an injury that curtailed his career after four scintilating starts and triumphs. Three years earlier, I had raced my own champion, Hail to Reason, voted 2-year-old king in 1960. To me, “Hail” was the best 2-year-old ever, but my dad told me in no uncertain terms that Raise a Native was superior, and “the best 2-year-old I have ever seen.” How ironic that years later Lou would become my husband, and the prolific Raise a Native would sire Exclusive Native, and be grandsire of Affirmed.
As Laz Barrera prepared Affirmed for his first start in a maiden special weight at Belmont May 24, 1977, he thought the rather slight, willowy, somewhat skinny colt most likely would be a quick and agile sprinter. The effortless 4 1⁄2-length victory excited us and gave the usually conservative Hall of Fame trainer a new perspective. Laz was so impressed that he ran Affirmed back in the Youthful Stakes just three weeks later. This time Affirmed demonstrated the attributes that would go on to define his future greatness: grit and determination. He battled to a hard-earned neck decision over his more seasoned foes, and also left Calumet Farm’s heralded newcomer Alydar in his wake. Seven subsequent starts brought his championship 2-year-old season to a close with a record of seven wins and two seconds, as well as a 4-2 record against Alydar, whose own future greatness would not be diminished by playing second fiddle to Affirmed, but rather serve to enhance our pride and joy.
Racing fans throughout the country eagerly awaited the continuation of the Affirmed/Alydar rivalry. (Watch video of the Affirmed/Alydar rivalry here.) The newly turned 3-year-olds’ paths diverged, as Laz took Affirmed to California while John Veitch wintered Alydar in Florida. Both colts totally dominated the opposition before they met again in the Kentucky Derby. Affirmed had filled out considerably, and we rationalized that the days missed in training due to an unusually wet winter in California may well have been a blessing in disguise. He had grown. He carried good flesh and reminded me of a young boy approaching adulthood. Then, we saw Alydar, even more robust and inpressive than the 2-year-old version that exuded power, already a mature man.
The Derby turned out to be the easiest time Affirmed would have against Alydar throughout their 10-race rivalry, save the Calumet star’s early loss in the Youthful. Both colts seemed to approach leg two, the Preakness, in splendid form; and only a neck separated them at the wire. The Belmont, three weeks hence, was a different story. John Veitch raved about Alydar’s resplendent condition. In an effort to reverse what must have been becoming a monotonous result, he made an equipment change, removing Alydar’s blinkers. Laz pretty much maintained the status quo and did not do much, since the rigors of the Derby and Preakness seemed to be taking their toll on Affirmed. The colt looked noticeably lighter to me, and I must have driven both trainer and husband crazy with my constant inquiries and obvious concern. Laz assured me Affirmed would be strong enough for the grueling final jewel. Lou was quoted as saying, “Affirmed, Affirmed, Affirmed…that’s all she’s ever talking about. I’ll be so glad when this Triple Crown is over.”
The running of “The Race of the Century” remains surreal in my mind. Yet, I am able to recall virtually every detail: from Affirmed’s cool, calm demeanor in the paddock, to Laz imparting last-minute words of wisdom and encouragement to his jock, to Lou’s being typically calm (outwardly anyway, though I know his heart had to be racing like mine), even to Stevie’s undoing Affirmed’s braided mane on the way to the post, and then to the heart-stopping final seven furlongs when the four warriors hooked up—Velasquez and Alydar, Cauthen and Affirmed—inseparable until that last-second thrust when Stevie switched his whip and hit Affirmed left-handed for the first time ever, and our pride and joy surged to the wire: the winner of the Triple Crown!
Where has the time gone?
I have great difficulty believing 30 years have passed by so swiftly. Just before the turn of this new century, my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. So many of the things we did and held in common were now mine alone. I especially remember the wonderful occasion in 2004, when Flawlessly, Affirmed’s two-time Eclipse Award-winning daughter, was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs. How I wished Lou, who was ailing, could have been there by my side as he had all those years of our marriage. There was, however, some solace the day following the memorable dedication ceremonies, as Lou and I were privileged to have the privacy of our own little tour of the Affirmed exhibit. While there, he sat, mesmerized, and watched a replay of the dramatic, pulsating Belmont finish.
Lou’s responsiveness suffered as a consequence of surgeries in 2005 and advancing Alzheimer’s, but highlighted moments from the past would continue to trigger and be a catalyst for reactions post surgery and during the last few years of his life. Though virtually incapacitated, he remained very peaceful and content. Instead of those waning months being an ordeal, they were truly a blessing, as I could be there with my best friend, who slept peacefully and comfortably nearby. He continued to enjoy sweet treats and affectionately returned my proffered daily kisses. He also became alert when our dog, Susie Q., sidled alongside; or upon hearing recognizable music, like “New York, New York,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and Sinatra standards; watching sports on television; and, most noticeably, viewing tapes of Affirmed’s races. I will always cherish two extraordinary moments that occurred late into the disease: on seeing Laz Barrera on the television screen, he exclaimed: “I know him!”; and the priceless gem when his first great-grandchild, Alexa, was an infant and visited us in Old Westbury. Lou’s smile lit up the room, and he reached out while chirping to get her attention, much as I found myself doing to get his.
I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of personal contacts and fan support so many years later. Helping to keep the flame burning, in no small part, have been the wonderful Affirmed exhibits at the Museum of Racing, and now at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
In reflecting on the Horse Park exhibit, Lou’s son, Steve Wolfson, said: “(My father) would be very appreciative of all the glory that has been rekindled. (The Kentucky Horse Park staff) has brought it all back to life. When Patrice comes here, she’ll be very emotional. More than anything, the Triple Crown and winning the Belmont marked the resurrection of my father, who had had some difficulties in his business. He, Patrice, and the whole family rose again. Affirmed was the catalyst to the return of my father, and that’s what has meant the most to me.”
Reflecting on those glorious times, I could not help thinking how much the sport has changed. In those not-so-long-ago days, top horses danced every dance. Over the 29-month period after his initial race, Affirmed averaged one start per month, ran all distances from 5 1⁄2 furlongs to 11⁄2 miles, carried and conceded weight (as much as 132, 130, and 128 pounds). As I pored over so many winner’s circle pictures and other memorabilia, I was amazed at Affirmed’s own physical transition from a slightly built, thin 2-year-old to a blossoming 3-year-old during the Triple Crown series, to a magnificent, strong specimen on the day of his final start, a victory in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup, cementing his (second) Horse-of-the-Year Eclipse Award.
Through it all, Affirmed never lost that sweet gentleness first observed when Lou and I sat on that fence watching the foals romp through the pasture at Harbor View Farm. One of my favorite pictures shows Affirmed willingly putting his head under my arm so I could give a little hug and bid him a safe journey to his stallion career in Kentucky.
As I relived all those wonderful times, the years melted away. I am contemplating a new project to memorialize and share those cherished moments with the many who relished and enjoyed the Affirmed years, perhaps by assembling the treasured collection into some format like a coffee table book, or even a video documentary.
Patrice Wolfson owned and raced Affirmed with her late husband, Louis Wolfson.