Still Chasing The Ghost Of Affirmed
The rippled chestnut colt born in Ocala and captured forever by old TV footage and faded photographs has been dead for seven years, his remains buried underneath his bronze statue on a patch of bluegrass in Kentucky. Affirmed may be gone, but 30 years after becoming the last horse to win the Triple Crown, others continue to chase him. Next up is Big Brown, who will try to end the Triple Crown drought Saturday in the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes. In the spring of '78, it was talented Alydar trying to catch Affirmed, most memorably in that epic battle between the two rivals down the stretch at the Belmont. Affirmed held a short lead, Alydar closed, briefly sticking a nostril out front, before Affirmed won a near photo finish. "Beat me by a nose," said Jorge Velasquez, Alydar's jockey that famous afternoon. "I was so hurt. In my opinion, I rode a winning race, and so did Stevie."Velasquez refers to Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen, who as a baby-faced 17-year-old national sensation rode Affirmed to victory in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and the Belmont. For his victorious mounts, Cauthen became the first jockey to be named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, edging Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson for the honor the way he edged Velasquez on the track. All thanks to that chestnut colt bred by Lou and Patrice Wolfson on their Harbor View Farm in Ocala. "I would test Affirmed's heart with anybody," Cauthen said last week on a national conference call with reporters to discuss Affirmed's place in history. "I would never have been afraid to challenge Big Brown, that's for sure." When Affirmed won the Triple Crown, he became the third horse in six years to accomplish the feat, something that 30 years later, seems hard to fathom since only 11 horses have accomplished the feat. In 1973, Secretariat wowed crowds and racing enthusiasts on the way to winning all three Classics. Four years later, Seattle Slew swept the three races, taking his place in history. What makes Affirmed's place in racing annals unique is that in many ways, he shares the Triple Crown spotlight with Alydar, a great racehorse in his own right who finished second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races that year. In the Kentucky Derby, Affirmed won by 11/2 lengths; he took the Preakness by a neck; and finally, he pulled out a victory by a head in perhaps the most memorable finish in Belmont history. To this day, Alydar trainer John Veitch marvels at the duels the two horses staged in America's three most famous races. "We came as close as we possibly could," Veitch said. "We were truly beaten by a great racehorse." Affirmed was foaled in February 1975 by the Wolfsons, who kept homes in Jacksonville and Miami but loved to escape to Harbor View to spend time around their horses. In his racing debut May 24, 1977, at Belmont Park, Affirmed cruised to a 41/2-length victory, setting the stage for a successful 2-year-old campaign that launched him onto the radar. Lou Wolfson, who made a fortune as a Wall Street financier prior to entering the thoroughbred racing business, passed away in December at age 95 after years of failing health. The Wolfsons have since sold their Harbor View Farm - the property is now called New Castle Farm and owned by former trainer James Crupi - but Patrice Wolfson continues to follow racing and will be at the Belmont on Saturday to see if Big Brown can become the 12th Triple Crown winner. Wolfson said she thought Smarty Jones was going to be that horse in 2004 - he is the last to have a chance, but his bid failed when he was caught by Birdstone in the Belmont to finish second - and knows first-hand what Big Brown's connections face Saturday in the 11/2-mile Belmont. "It's just a very difficult task," Wolfson said. "Everything has to go the right way. And you need a horse that wants to go that distance. Horses were tougher then. You know, with the three horses winning in the '70s, it just looked as though perhaps it was starting to get a little easy. I had no idea that it would ever take this long." Veitch agreed with Wolfson that the stars have to align on the right days, a fact he learned in heartbreaking fashion considering that Alydar beat Affirmed on multiple occasions but not in any of the Triple Crown races. "To win the Triple Crown, everything has to line up absolutely perfect," Veitch said. "And everything - the weather, the horse's condition, the track conditions - everything has to be just absolutely perfect to get it done." Whether Big Brown can join horse racing's most elite fraternity Saturday is uncertain, but Affirmed's legacy is as secure today as it was on that June afternoon 30 years ago in the Belmont. "The race will never be forgotten, that's for sure," Wolfson said. "He had to call on his heart to find that extra bit to pull him through," Cauthen said of Affirmed's historic performance. "The thing about the '78 Triple Crown, it was two great teams, and two great horses." True, but only one named Affirmed, and that is the one history is kindest to.
Reporter Scott Carter can be reached at (850) 294-3088 or [email protected]