This article was originally published June 12, 1978, in The Globe and Mail's sports section.
They did not disappoint, but that should not be surprising.
After all, these two 3-year-old colts, Affirmed and Alydar, have done everything man has demanded from them and gone one step beyond.
Not only did they carry their furious struggle over the three gruelling races in five weeks known as the Triple Crown, a schedule that was destroyed some animals and left others demoralized. Not only did they make each race better than the one before.
Out of it all emerged a Triple Crown winner, Affirmed. And Alydar made Affirmed earn it, in a way none of the 10 previous Triple Crown winners had to, in Saturday's $184,300 Belmont Stakes.
In one of the best races ever seen, the two horses slugged it out toe-to-toe for the final seven furlongs of the 11/2-mile race, urged on by a crowd of 65,417 at Belmont Park.
When it was over, Affirmed had won again, just as he had in the Kentucky Derby at Louisville, May 6, and in the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore, May 20. This time the margin was the closest of the three races, a head. At Louisville, the margin was 11/2 lengths and at Baltimore it was a neck.
"This one here, the best race I ever saw in my whole life," said Laz Barrera, who trains Affirmed for Louis Wolfson's Harbor View Farm. "Horses going head and head for so long, fighting it out to the wire."
Perhaps Barrera is prejudiced; the race meant so much to him. Others also were pressed to recall a better race when so much was at stake.
It is the first time there has been Triple Crown winners in successive years. Last year, Seattle Slew cruised home in the Belmont Stakes to complete his sweep. Alydar is the first horse to have finished second in each of the Triple Crown events.
"I have to say one thing, Alydar is a great horse," Barrera said. "He fights like a tiger and I think that as long as I live, I never see two horses like these ones. I have to give a lot of credit to Alydar. This was a great race. . . You cannot be disappointed to be beaten because both horses run a winning race."
Perhaps the emotion of the race was best summed up when Affirmed's rider Steve Cauthen and Alydar's rider Jorge Velasquez hugged in the jockeys' quarters after the race. No words were exchanged. They were not necessary.
Affirmed and Alydar have met nine times during the past two seasons. Affirmed has won seven. The colt, a son of Exclusive Native-Won't Tell You and also bred by Harbor View, has lost only twice in 16 starts – both to Alydar. The only horse other than Affirmed to have beaten Alydar in 17 starts is Believe It in last year's Remsen Stakes.
"What can I say?" asked John Veitch, who trains Alydar for Calumet Farm. "It was a helluva horse race. . . He has stayed strong throughout the toughest grind. He still looks strong and we'll be back to try Affirmed again. And we'll get him sometime, somewhere. Maybe the Travers at Saragota."
Both horses will be rested. Barrera said that if he has his way, Affirmed won't start again until the Travers in August. "And if it's left up to me I don't run him against older horses this year. This horse has had a very hard campaign and there are a lot of 3-year-old races he can run in. How long can a horse go?"
Barrera also feels the Triple Crown races are too close together, that a month should separate each race.
"A lot of people don't agree with me, but the Triple Crown is too close together. Today, we have winter racing. Today we run every day. The way we're running there's gonna be a time when we're running morning and night. And I tell you something, horses need time. Horses need some relaxation."
There were three other colts in the Belmont, but they soon became irrelevant. Third-place Darby Creek Road was 13 3/4 lengths behind Alydar and fourth- place Judge Advocate, ridden by Jeff Fell of Hamilton and Mississauga, was another 7 3/4 lengths behind. Fell still had a good day, riding both ends of the daily double.
The time of 2:26 4/5 was the third fastest in the history of the race, but still nearly three seconds off Secretariat's record when he won by 31 lengths in completing his Triple Crown in 1973, the first in 25 years.
The thing about Saturday's race is that it started slowly. The first half strolled in 50 seconds and the first six furlongs in 1:14. The last six furlongs was run in 1:12 4/5. Secretariat ran his last six furlongs in 1:14 1/5.
When it became apparent that Affirmed was going slowly on the lead, Velasquez took Alydar in pursuit on the first turn. On the backstretch, it became a match race, but like few other match races in excitement. Alydar stayed outside of Affirmed all the way down the backstretch, around the sweeping turn and into the stretch. Both jockeys figure Alydar actually got a nose in front with about three-sixteenths of a mile to go, but it was hard to tell on the replay.
Both riders were hitting their horses right-handed, but with Alydar so close to Affirmed, just past the eighth pole Cauthen transferred his whip to his left hand smoothly and started hitting left-handed.
"At the head of the lane I was hitting him on the shoulder and at the three- sixteenths pole Alydar got in front of me," Cauthen said. "I switched my stick to hit Affirmed left-handed and he really seemed to respond good from it. He was digging in like he always does, but he seemed to dig in a little more when he was hit with the left hand. I've never hit him before left-handed."
At the finish, Cauthen raised his left hand as a salute. Although, a photo finish was called, everyone knew the winner.
Cauthen was asked if he and Velasquez had said anything to each other, since they were side by side for so long. He said there was no conversation until after the finish. "He said, 'congratulations' and I said, 'thank you.'"
About this time, Cauthen held up a T-shirt someone had given him. The letters on the front said: "Cauthen's Affirmed Triple Crown 1978." It was pink and black, the Harbor View colors.
"I'm just glad it's over," Cauthen said. "Sometimes if I seem a little, I don't know, you all say cold, I try not to be. I'm just trying to do my job."
If Cauthen seems rather cool, Barrera is ebullient. In the emotional winner's enclosure scene, he kissed Cauthen. "I think he deserve a kiss so I give him one."
Barrera had told Cauthen to go with Alydar. "I would have gone with him (Alydar) from here to China. I don't leave him alone for one minute because I know I have to beat him and he has to beat me. That was the only instruction I gave to Steve, you go with him wherever he wants to go. If he beats us, too bad."
There no doubt will be large offers for Affirmed for syndication as a stud. Barrera said he did not think Wolffson would sell. Barrera revealed that he has a share in the colt, but if he is sold he gets 10 per cent.
He couldn't resist a joke. "If it left up to me, there would be a big chance he'll be sold."
Back at Barn 47, Barrera was reflective. He is a Cuban and has trained in such places as Mexico City. He did not start out with a horse as good as Affirmed when he first came to the United States.
He was asked if some doors are open to him that were not before. "Yes, they open very easy. It feels very good. But I can tell you something. The doors that used to open before are the ones I like to keep going to now. Those people who first gave me the start in this country . . . I don't leave them for anybody."
Avelino Gomez, who now rides in Ontario, used to ride for Barrera in Mexico City. Barrera and Gomez still are good friends. "Say hello to Avelino for me," he told a visitor from Toronto.
Then he went to his car. Someone else followed with a blanket of flowers from the winner's enclosure.