The 1970’s was a banner decade for thoroughbred racing, with three Triple Crown winners and a few great rivals to push those champions, including Sham and Alydar. Previous to Secretariat, it had been 25 years since racing had a Triple Crown winner, and many thought that it could be that long again before there was another. The decade, however, had other plans and we saw two more greats pass through our midst with Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. Over the past few weeks we have looked at the first two Triple Crown winners of the television age, and we will wrap up our series with Affirmed.
Right from the start, Affirmed had Triple Crown racing in his blood. He was foaled out of Won’t Tell You in 1975 at Harbor View Farm in Florida, with his sire being Exclusive Native. Exclusive Native was the great-grandson of War Admiral, who won the Triple Crown in 1937. Affirmed was trained by Cuban born Hall of Famer Laz Barrera and jockeyed for most of his career by Steve Cauthen and then later by Laffit Pincay.
Affirmed began his racing career in 1977 and won his maiden race at Belmont Park. His second race would also be a victory, but is notable because it was the first of ten races he would compete with Alydar in. Alydar was Affirmed’s chief rival and is one of the most exciting and storied rivalries, not only in horse racing, but in all of sports. Alydar would finish sixth that day, but just a month later would return to the track at Belmont and hand Affirmed his first loss. Affirmed went on to win four consecutive races, all of them graded stakes contests, including the Futurity and Hopeful Stakes. It was only September, but Affirmed was already causing quite a buzz about his chances in the 1978 Kentucky Derby. One of the top races for two-year-olds is the Champagne Stakes, and once again the two rivals hooked up with Alydar accelerating to edge out Affirmed. That wouldn’t happen again for almost a year as Affirmed went on to reel off nine consecutive wins, six of those being grade I stakes races. At the conclusion of the 1977 racing season, Affirmed was named the American Champion Two-Year-Old Colt.
Affirmed solidified his position as the horse to watch as racing went into the 1978 Triple Crown season. He had won the top Kentucky Derby prep races, the Santa Anita and Hollywood Derby’s and was poised to take his place among the greats. Despite his recent performances Affirmed was not the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, as the bettors were placing their faith in Alydar. The Derby saw both horses get off to slow starts and trailing along the back stretch. As the field rounded the final turn, Affirmed was able to push to the front and extended his lead down the stretch to as many as three lengths. Alydar closed fast and actually made the race close at the wire finishing just a length behind. The bettors wouldn’t shy away from Affirmed in the Preakness Stakes and made him the favorite in the second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico Race Course. From the start Affirmed was able to move up front and run there, while Alydar was content to play his usual closer role. Jockey Steve Cauthen was very patient with his champion, even as the race tightened, with no fewer than five horses within two lengths of one another at the half-mile point. At the top of the home stretch, Alydar made his move, much quicker than he did in the Kentucky Derby, and challenged the front running Affirmed. The two battled all the way down the stretch, but Affirmed never gave up the lead and won by a neck in yet another fantastic finish.
The Belmont Stakes started a small five horse field and right out of the gate, Affirmed took the lead but held on to a pace that was just a bit slower than usual. Alydar moved up into second along the back stretch and those two pulled away from the field by six lengths as they moved into the turn. For almost a half-mile the two rivals ran side by side, with Affirmed holding the lead, all but for a brief moment with a hundred yards to go. In the end, Affirmed was able to stay ahead and took the Belmont by a nose, winning the Triple Crown, just one year after Seattle Slew had turned the trick. His great rival, Alydar finished second in each of the Triple Crown races, cementing him as one of the great runners-up of all-time! Two months later, Affirmed would win his first post-Triple Crown start in the Grade III Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, and conclude his winning streak. He would meet Alydar one final time, and that race would take place in the Travers Stakes. Affirmed finished ahead of his rival at the wire, but was awarded second after an inquiry disqualified him from the win, which would later mean that the Jim Dandy Stakes had been the last win for Affirmed with Cauthen has his jockey. The rivalry with Alydar ended at Saratoga that day, with Affirmed winning seven of the ten meetings.
As magical as the Triple Crown run had been for Affirmed and racing fans, there was one last classic race to be run for Affirmed in 1978; the Marlboro Cup Invitational. For the first time in thoroughbred history, two Triple Crown champions would be racing head to head. Seattle Slew had too much speed, and went on to win by three lengths over Affirmed, who never really challenged. For his tremendous year, he was awarded the Horse of the Year Award and was also named the American Champion Three-Year-Old. 1979 started slowly for the Triple Crown winner, as he finished out of the top three, third, and second in his first three races, and then had to change jockeys because of an injury to Cauthen. Laffit Pincay took over and immediately started winning. Pincay finished out Affirmed’s career with seven consecutive wins, five of those being grade I stakes races. Even though he had planted himself firmly in history, he closed his career winning top rated races at Santa Anita, Belmont, and Hollywood Park. His success in 1979 paid off as once again he was named Horse of the Year and he was the American Champion Older Horse. Without a doubt, Affirmed’s trophy case was filling up.
Affirmed ended his career as one of the most successful race horses in history. In 29 starts, he finished “in the money” 28 times, with 22 victories, earning over $2.8 million in the process. He can count 19 major wins in his career, five prestigious racing awards, was ranked as the 12th greatest race horse of all-time and is in the United States Racing Hall of Fame. Not to be lost among those accolades, Affirmed also has two races named for him and a street in Napa, California. In his stud career, he sired over 80 stakes winners and his progeny have won over $44 million. He was euthanized in 2001 after becoming sick with laminitis, a hoof disease, not uncommon in the world of horse racing.
The 1970’s seemed to be a golden era for horse racing, and it’s likely that there will never be another period like that again for the sport. What we are left with are great memories and, with the expansion of media, we can watch the feats of these great champions and ponder their spectacular achievements forever.