There are moments along the Triple Crown trail that remain forever etched in our minds. For this writer, one of those was April 27, 1978.
Prior to the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland, then run just nine days before the Run for the Roses, Jorge Velasquez slowly walked local favorite Alydar from the post parade and toward the outside rail. There, the jockey stood the dark chestnut before his elderly, frail owners, Adm. and Mrs. Gene Markey.
The Markeys, who owned historic Calumet Farm near Keeneland, beamed as their latest star stood glistening under the farm’s easily recognizable red and blue silks and blinkers.
Though it happened 30 years ago, one can still see the station wagon pulling onto the grass beside the clubhouse, and Mrs. Markey walking to the rail with the aid of a Keeneland usher.
For a racing crazy University of Kentucky student in the last year of his teens, Alydar winning that day by 13 meant only one thing—he would be Calumet’s ninth Kentucky Derby winner.
Of course, it was not to be. Alydar’s nemesis, Affirmed, won all three Triple Crown races, and Alydar became the only horse to run second throughout the classic series. In fact, the Derby (gr. I) was by far the least exciting of the three races, Affirmed scoring by 1 1⁄2 lengths. The two were separated by only a neck in the Preakness (gr. I), and put on a show in the Belmont (gr. I) that will be recorded as one of the greatest races of all time. For the final six-plus furlongs, they ran together, Affirmed a determined head in front at the wire.
The evening of April 20, 2008, this writer watched the 1978 Triple Crown races for the first time in 30 years. And as Alydar put his head briefly in front at the three-sixteenths pole in the Belmont, emotions rushed back of knowing Alydar would get his revenge in the Test of the Champion.
We all know what happened. Affirmed was that good.
As a 2-year-old, Affirmed made nine starts and won seven. He finished second twice…to Alydar.
As a 2-year-old, Alydar made 10 starts and won five. He finished second four times. His connections thought so much of him they ran him first time out in the Youthful Stakes at Belmont, which Affirmed won by five lengths, with Alydar finishing fifth. Affirmed would beat him three more times that year, and Alydar also finished second in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) to Believe It.
A few weeks ago, The Blood-Horse arranged to reunite the jockeys of Affirmed (Steve Cauthen) and Alydar (Velasquez). Features editor Lenny Shulman asked questions, replayed the Triple Crown races, and sat back and listened for two hours. As he notes in his introduction, the tape of the races was really not needed—each day, each workout, each step of the races remembered as if it were yesterday.
Besides the remembrance in this issue, four lengthy video pieces with the jockeys will air in the coming weeks. (Watch the video here.)
It was a great rivalry, perhaps the greatest.
“Alydar and Affirmed were six or seven lengths better than the rest of their generation. Simple as that. Alydar would run away from his fields, but Affirmed would only do it when Alydar was there to make him do it,” Cauthen said.
“These two horses were like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. They always brought the best out in each other,” Velasquez said.
”The longest three weeks of my life was the time between the Preakness and the Belmont,” Cauthen said, later adding, “There wasn’t a lot between those two horses. One small mistake, one little thing, can switch it either way.”
It is the stuff movies are made of.
Here’s hoping some movie producer thinks so.