Affirmed wore racing's Triple Crown 26 years ago
By Beth Harris
NEW YORK -- Steve Cauthen was an 18-year-old kid with a daunting task in 1978: ride Affirmed to victory in the Belmont Stakes and win the Triple Crown.
And the small-town jockey from Kentucky had more than Affirmed to worry about, too. Cauthen and his chestnut colt faced a worthy opponent in Alydar.
The results of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness were close: Affirmed won by 1 1/2 lengths and a head.
"We were frightened to death of him and we knew he was an unbelievable horse," said Patrice Wolfson, who owned Affirmed with her husband.
Affirmed and Alydar's rivalry culminated on a June afternoon 26 years ago when they raced in unison to the wire. This time, Affirmed won by a head and became racing's 11th Triple Crown winner.
"I'm always amazed at the young people who write to me that couldn't possibly have known the horse," Wolfson said. "They've read about it or seen him on the Internet."
Affirmed's Triple Crown came just a year after Seattle Slew -- the last undefeated horse to sweep the series -- and four years after Secretariat accomplished the feat. Smarty Jones is 8-0 going into the Belmont Stakes.
"Right after Affirmed won the Triple Crown, people were saying the Triple Crown is getting too easy," Cauthen recalled.
Six times in the last eight years, horses have come to the Belmont with a chance to match Affirmed's feat. None succeeded. Smarty Jones will take his shot Saturday.
"It takes an extra special horse," Cauthen said. "You need good fortune. The training and everything has to go your way."
Affirmed was trained by the late Laz Barrera, a Cuban whose mangling of the English language provided comic relief during the stress of the Triple Crown.
"He was a great team leader," Cauthen said.
Like Cauthen, Stewart Elliott, Smarty Jones' jockey, won the Derby in his first try.
"I have been pretty impressed with the way Stewart Elliott and everybody has handled the whole situation," Cauthen said. "They just seem like they're working as a team. Even though it's not maybe the normal situation they're used to, they seem to be handling it tremendously well."
Team Affirmed did as well. Cauthen's cool professionalism during the three-week buildup between the Preakness and Belmont belied his age and inexperience. The attention didn't bother Affirmed, either.
"He was a very intelligent horse, and he had a great temperament. He walked around most of the time like he didn't have a care in the world," Cauthen said. "But as soon as he walked in that gate, everything changed, and he was focused and ready to go. He always broke excellently from the starting gate."
Five horses ran in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, but it came down to Affirmed and Alydar. Affirmed took the lead on the inside. Alydar's experienced jockey, Jorge Velasquez, moved his colt up close on the backstretch.
The two horses ran stride for stride for seven furlongs, noses barely apart, before 65,417 screaming fans. The two horses went through the sweeping turn for home, with Alydar appearing to poke his nose in front for the first time in the Triple Crown.
Cauthen sensed Affirmed was tiring. He switched the whip to his left hand and smacked the colt. Affirmed responded instantly and regained the lead.
But Alydar kept shadowing his rival. Affirmed clung to his slight advantage and hit the wire a head in front, finishing the 1 1/2 miles in 2:26 4-5.
The two met again in the Travers, but Affirmed was disqualified and placed second after his jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., cut off Alydar on the turn. The horses raced as 4-year-olds but never against each other.
Alydar was euthanized in 1990 after breaking a leg in his stall; Affirmed died in 2001.
Wolfson, Cauthen and the connections of Secretariat and Seattle Slew are rooting for Smarty Jones.
"My feeling is if Elliott can get Smarty Jones to relax wherever he's at, whether he's in front, whether he's laying second, third or fourth for the first half of the race, then I think everybody is going to have a tough time," Cauthen said.
Wolfson plans to be at Belmont Park on Saturday, along with an expected crowd of 120,000. Cauthen, 44, probably won't be since his daughters have a dance recital that day.
"Unlike the other horses who have had a chance to go for the Triple Crown the last six years, I am looking to see this horse win," Cauthen said. "I can see him as he's blowing the field away, and I hope he does. It'll be so exciting for everybody if he can."