Just Like Yesterday - by Dan Liebman

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.

14 Comments

Leave a Comment:

Tj

This morning as I turned out my 22 year old Alydar grandson for the day, who I successfully evented for many years, I marveled that he is still as magnificent as he always was.

22 Apr 2008 11:22 AM
BK

I, too, remember those days fondly.  At one time I actually thought Believe It had a chance to win one of the Triple Crown races.  He was that good and he was flatly humbled by Affirmed and Alydar.  He really shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as those two and he was one heck of a racehorse.  Look up Believe It's stats to see for yourself.  It puts the greatness of both Affirmed and Alydar in perspective.

22 Apr 2008 11:25 AM
needler in Virginia

What sort of comment works in this situation? Mrs Wolfson remembering her husband, her horse and that year, Cauthen and Velasquez speaking of the horses and the races.... I know it's not that classy, nor am I being exceptionally erudite, but only one word leaps to mind: WOW!

While I was thrilled watching the races that year, my favorite is STILL Alydar. with apologies to all of Affirmed's connections. The absolute uniqueness of the situation will will probably never be repeated, and that's perfect, too. The electricity on the track, whenever those two hooked up, could have powered New York City. Maybe that's the best way to describe the races and the rivalry......electric.

Can't think of one more thing to say......and I can't believe it's been 30 years, either!

22 Apr 2008 1:03 PM
joe

...And those were the days, when you followed your favorite every COUPLE of weeks, in Florida from the Flamingo to the Florida Derby, and one to Keeneland or the Wood.  On the West Coast, the preps prior to the Santa Anita Derby, and even the Hollywood Derby before Kentucky.  The last two years, with the racing calendar and two prep race campaigns, the fun of developing a favorite is gone.

22 Apr 2008 1:52 PM
TC in Texas

Oh the Seventees. How blessed my son and I were to see in person, Riva Ridge & Secreteriat in the same race, Forego, The Bid, Afirmed & Aydar & Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure. Those were the days my friend.

22 Apr 2008 4:34 PM
Johnny

I wasn't following racing in the 70s, but through lots of reading, and looking at old films, I've tried to catch up.

Affirmed and Alydar's story was perhaps the most exciting of all my studies. Two truly great racehorses that gave so much to the sport; and to each other. Both horses inseparable, each reaching his true greatness because of the other, both intertwined together in racing history.

23 Apr 2008 1:07 AM
Greg

I'm glad I got to see horses and racing like Alydar and Affirmed 30 years ago, because, unfortunately, those days are gone. What a shame!

23 Apr 2008 2:09 PM
Dreamer's Mom

Our farm is the home to a grand-daughter of Affirmed and a granddaugther of Alydar.  Life is good.

23 Apr 2008 8:37 PM
Mary

Unfortunately, I was too young in 1978 to see Alydar (my favorite too!) run. Althea was my introduction to horse racing and Alydar's magnificence. I remember sitting at my dad's house in 1983 watching Althea & Hot Milk battle it out on one of the ESPN weekly racing shows. I knew I had to learn more about her, which in short order, opened my door to Alydar and the Calumet legacy. I have, of course, watched replays of the 1978 Triple Crown races again and again and again, hoping that with each subsequent viewing, the outcome will change. That said, Affirmed and Alydar were both amazing horses, and my only true regret is the way Alydar's life came to an end on November 15, 1990.      

To Dan Liebman; On a somewhat unrelated note, I want to extend a long overdue thank you for having spent an hour of your time with me in 1994. I was a recent college graduate, who had moved to Lexington hoping to work in the racing industry. The Blood-Horse was not hiring, however, you were one of the few who took my interest seriously and invited m in for a chat. Although racing never turned into anything more than a hobby (obsession?) for me, I still remember and still appreciate that day.    

23 Apr 2008 9:25 PM
Dennis

I remember the great triple crown as if it were yesterday. I had an older friend who grew up loving Calumet farms and their horses, and I was an Affirmed fan. I won three bets with him because I would not bet Affirmed at the windows, too cheap. At the end we were both in awe of these performances.

23 Apr 2008 10:08 PM
Dena Lentz

Thank you so much for your article. It certainly brought back wonderful memories. I have several framed Alydar prints in my home. Of course some include the wonderful Affirmed as well.

24 Apr 2008 9:52 PM
Bellwether

They must have been buddies too!!!

26 Apr 2008 1:26 AM
degenerate gambler

Cool! for me it was 79. My first derby and the best horse I've seen since. SPECTACULAR BID. "The greatest horse to look through a bridle"

26 Apr 2008 10:45 PM
yvette

i have worked at many farms with alydar and affirmed mares. they always thrilled me, to be here with such quality stock. One time i took a maiden daughter of a Derby/preakness winner to be bred to Affirmed. I was shocked when i had to hold the mares tail, and when that didnt work, (with the guys in the breeding shed giggling) i had to "help" guide "it" in! I nonetheless saved Affirmed's hair that he shed on my gleaming mare and have fond memories of what a magnificent horse he was, and how intelligent and well mannered, for a stallion.

26 Oct 2008 3:19 AM

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