Two Great Horses, One Great Rivalry

This story was originally published on Sunday, April 27, 2008

Affirmed is shown winning the 1978 Kentucky Derby with jockey Steve Cauthen riding.  The 2nd place horse was Calumet Farms Alydar with Jorge Velasquez up.  Believe It with Eddie Maple up finished third. Affirmed was the last triple crown winner. Photo by Frank Anderson | Staff

Affirmed is shown winning the 1978 Kentucky Derby with jockey Steve Cauthen riding. The 2nd place horse was Calumet Farms Alydar with Jorge Velasquez up. Believe It with Eddie Maple up finished third. Affirmed was the last triple crown winner. Photo by Frank Anderson | Staff

By Linda B. Blackford

If you were at Churchill Downs 30 years ago on Derby Day, if you made it past the sweaty crowds and sticky julep spills to that hair-raising moment when 130,000 people rise to their feet to sing My Old Kentucky Home, you knew history was about to be made.

An already famous rivalry between two chestnut colts was set to explode on the first Saturday in May.

Whom to pick? Alydar, the strapping liver chestnut with all the glamour of the famed Calumet Farm behind him, versus Affirmed, champion 2-year-old with an 18-year-old Kentucky boy named Steve Cauthen on his back. Both had more statistics and sentiment than any fan could ask for.

Maybe Alydar had the edge. Just a few weeks before, he’d won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland by 13 lengths. He was a bit of a fairy-tale horse, a symbol not only of Calumet’s vaunted breeding stock but also of its resurrection as Lexington’s most famous thoroughbred farm. The halcyon setting of red trim and white fences had produced eight Kentucky Derby winners, two Triple Crown horses — Whirlaway and Citation — in the 1940s, and a host of champion fillies.

Affirmed might have played the upstart — he was born in Florida, after all — but he, too, had the goods, winning seven of nine starts in 1977, a year that ended with his Eclipse Award for best 2-year-old.

The symbols didn’t quite hold for the whole story, the one that follows the horses back to the barn and the breeding shed and happily ever after, but the crowd got its history, the start of one of the most exciting Triple Crown campaigns ever.

“The fact is,” says racing historian Ed Bowen, “that this Triple Crown was the greatest contest in modern racing.”

‘A media circus’

That Derby Day was sunny and beautiful, as it nearly always seems to be. Alydar’s trainer, 32-year-old John Veitch, had vanned him over from Calumet the day after the Blue Grass Stakes, and remembers a “media circus,” with the theme of “Calumet’s return to prominence.”

Affirmed had plenty of fans as well, and his story was already deeply intertwined with that of Alydar. Affirmed was owned by Louis and Patrice Wolfson, who had a successful breeding and racing operation in Florida. Patrice Wolfson was the daughter of famed trainer Hirsch Jacobs; Louis had bought Alydar’s sire Raise a Native as a yearling, the same horse who was Affirmed’s grandsire.

Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen had told the story of that Derby so many times over the years that it’s rote: The night before the Derby he’d slept on the floor of his family’s hotel room because it was his turn. But he was used to it, and slept well, and the day of the race, tried to stay calm as he reviewed his and trainer Laz Barrera’s plan for the race.

Triple Crown winner Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen, who piloted Affirmed  to his Triple Crown win, celebrates the 20th anniversary of their Kentucky  Derby win this week at Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky., on April 27, 1998. Photo by David Stephenson | Staff

Triple Crown winner Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen, who piloted Affirmed to his Triple Crown win, celebrates the 20th anniversary of their Kentucky Derby win this week at Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky., on April 27, 1998. Photo by David Stephenson | Staff

Then there was the walk up the track to the paddock, with the singing of the state song, and fans chanting “Alydar, Alydar.”

“This was my first dance,” Veitch said. “I’d won some big races before that, but there’s nothing like the Derby … it was magical.”

Finally, they were off, and there was Affirmed near the front.

“I got to the front because I really wanted to go when and if Alydar got close,” Cauthen said. “To me, he was always the horse I was going to have to beat to win the race.”

Once Affirmed got away from Sensitive Prince, “it pretty much happened as planned.” That is to say, Affirmed won the race from the second turn on without too much interference.

In the beginning, Alydar was ninth, farther back in a race than he’d ever been, Veitch said. Although he rallied to second place, he still finished 1 1/2 lengths behind Affirmed.

When Veitch got back to the barn with the horse, he realized why — something he kept quiet for quite a while.

Alydar’s eye started swelling shut, clearly having been hit by something early in the race.

Veitch called Lucille Markey — Calumet owner and racing grand dame — and explained it to her. She told him to keep it quiet. “She said, ‘We don’t want to look like we’re going to make an excuse for one of our horses.’”

‘The greatest race’

But 30 years later, racing fans know that the potent symbol of the Kentucky Derby, the greatest race in North America, provided the purest of adrenaline right up until … Preakness Day.

After watching the neck-and-neck battle of Alydar and Affirmed on that Maryland racetrack, people suddenly realized that Alydar hadn’t exactly shown his greatest stuff in the Derby. In fact, in retrospect, he hadn’t really challenged Affirmed the way he was very able to do.

Then the Belmont wiped the Preakness right out of everyone’s minds. Its thrill is unmatched, with the two chestnuts neck-and-neck for three-quarters of a mile with no other horse in sight. Alydar got his head in front but Affirmed’s nose was the one under the wire first to win the Triple Crown.

It’s not surprising that Bowen is one of many who calls it “the greatest race in North American history.”

“We were digging as deep as we could for everything we had, and it was that much good enough,” Cauthen says.

Still, Veitch wouldn’t give up. Bowen remembers the day after the Belmont, down at the backside, Veitch was talking to reporters, one foot propped on his Jaguar as he ate a Fudgsicle, talking about how he couldn’t wait until the Travers Stakes in August at Saratoga, where the two horses would meet again for the last time.

But that would turn out to be the “biggest disappointment of all,” Veitch says now. As Alydar was making his move, jockey Laffit Pincay, riding for the injured Cauthen, cut him off, causing Alydar to check suddenly. Alydar recovered and got close, but Affirmed was under the wire first again.

Affirmed was disqualified, so Alydar won. It was their last meeting.

Still today, Veitch holds no bitterness about all those incredibly close second places.

“Being involved with Affirmed and Alydar and the Triple Crown through that entire 16 months more than makes up for any of the disappointments,” Veitch says today. “It’s something that you’ll remember forever.”

The second act

Both horses raced as 4-year-olds, Affirmed losing to Seattle Slew in one race, but the glory had been the year before. The time had come for both horses to begin their second act.

Affirmed was syndicated as a stallion for $16 million and began standing at Spendthrift Farm. Alydar returned to Calumet.

Within a few years, their progeny began to race, and for the first time, Alydar’s star rose above Affirmed’s. He became known as a fantastic stallion, sire to such horses as Alysheba, who outdid his sire by winning both the Derby and the Preakness.

Affirmed was also a good sire, father of such horses as champion filly Flawlessly, but he never commanded such prices or demand.

Briefly, the two foes were together again when Affirmed was moved to Calumet before going to Jonabell Farm.

Jimmy Bell, who grew up at Jonabell and still manages the farm for Darley USA, thinks that Affirmed is somewhat underrated as a sire, fathering 80 stakes winners and nine champions.

Still, he agrees it’s fair to say that Affirmed will be remembered more for his legacy on the track.

“Affirmed will be more long remembered for his ability to dig down and call on whatever resources he had,” Bell said. “They probably did leave different legacies, one in the breeding shed and one on the racetrack,” said Bell.

Bell also praises Calumet Farm and the Wolfsons for allowing their horses to meet 10 times. “They were such great sportsmen to honor that commitment,” he said.

Cauthen said he thinks that Alydar was probably paired with better mares, especially in the beginning, because of Calumet’s fantastic broodmare stock.

“That might have been one of the races Alydar won,” Cauthen said.

Calumet’s downfall

But Alydar, the horse that brought Calumet back to the spotlight, became a key part of its downfall.

Under the management of J.T. Lundy, who was married to one of the Calumet heirs, Alydar’s seasons were promised like party favors as part of a campaign of borrowing and overspending, according to court documents in the case that eventually convicted Lundy of fraud.

J.T. Lundy holds Alydar a Calument Farm in this July 1990 File Photo.  Lundy was president of Calumet Farm in 1990 and Alydar was the leading sire that year. Photo by David Perry | Staff

J.T. Lundy holds Alydar a Calument Farm in this July 1990 File Photo. Lundy was president of Calumet Farm in 1990 and Alydar was the leading sire that year. Photo by David Perry | Staff

On Nov. 13, 1990, Alydar broke his leg in a mysterious incident that still raises many questions. It was repaired in surgery, but he broke it again in recovery and had to be put down. He died shortly before a major bank payment was due.

Calumet collected $35 million on an insurance claim.

Still, it wasn’t enough. By 1992, Calumet was in bankruptcy and was sold at auction a short time later.

“The death of Alydar was the final death knell of Calumet Farm,” says Bowen. “He was instrumental in its resurgence in the 1970s, and then he was part of its very sad ending.”

Affirmed lived another decade, dying after a short battle with laminitis in 2001. His statue stands in front of Darley USA’s stallion complex.

No other horse has claimed the Triple Crown since he did, and certainly no other duo has brought so much excitement to American racing.

“Neither of them would have reached the mystical status today if it hadn’t been for the other,” Veitch said.

“They made themselves immortal.”

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