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Two-horse race an Affirmed delight


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 1999

Once again, as in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, it looked like an eight-legged, two-headed horse charging down the stretch at the 1978 Belmont Stakes.

It was Affirmed and Alydar going at it again.

Few horses have been linked the way these two were, and are. Think of one and the other instantly comes to mind, one name following the other as comfortably as jelly follows peanut butter.

"What made the rivalry great was it came during the biggest series of races in America, the most prestigious events you can win, when everyone was watching," Steve Cauthen, Affirmed's jockey, said. In nearly 4 miles of racing at Churchill Downs, Pimlico Race Course and Belmont Park, the total margin separating them in the run for the Triple Crown was less than 2 lengths, and Affirmed won all three -- by 11/2 lengths five Saturdays earlier in Kentucky, by a neck two weeks after that in Baltimore and by a head in New York -- to become the 11th Triple Crown winner.

The Derby and Preakness were merely out-of-town tryouts for the show that opened off Broadway on May6, 1978. In fact, they were co-stars long before the three-race test for 3-year-olds. They raced eight times before the Belmont. Affirmed won six, and his net winning margin was still less than 3 lengths.

"It was these horses last year," Affirmed's trainer, Laz Barrera, said, "and it's been these two horses all along. And Affirmed has always had a little edge on Alydar. Affirmed is a great horse. He's just a little bit better than Alydar, and he has to be. Alydar is an extraordinary colt."

The numbers backed him up. In 33 combined starts, the two horses had 23 firsts and nine seconds. No other horse but Alydar beat Affirmed, and virtually no other horse besides Affirmed beat Alydar.

The Belmont was a five-horse field with no speed horses. Cauthen, 18 years old at the time, set a slow early pace. Jorge Velasquez brought Alydar up to challenge the leader barely one-quarter of a mile out of the gate.

They were never more than 11/2 lengths apart, and none of the other three horses was ever closer than 2 lengths.

For the final three-quarters of a mile, Affirmed and Alydar ran side by side.

Three-sixteenths of a mile from the finish line, Velasquez got Alydar's head in front. Cauthen had whipped Affirmed nine times with his right hand before the horses got so close together that he had to switch the whip to his left, and Affirmed rallied to win.

"When we crossed the finish line in the Belmont, a million emotions ran through my mind, but the main one was relief," Cauthen said 20 years after the race. "The moment was so glorious. It was like knocking someone out in the 10th round of a championship fight. I remember it like yesterday."

Barrera said Cauthen "gave Affirmed a perfect ride. After the race, I gave him a kiss. I think he deserved the kiss."

John Veitch, Alydar's trainer, was almost speechless. "What can I say?" he exclaimed. "It was a hell of a horse race and we got beat."

And Velasquez added: "I wish I could get one more chance at him."

-- Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.

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