Winning the Triple Crown was becoming old hat for the racing fans of the 1970’s.
They had witnessed Secretariat’s dramatic Belmont victory with announcer Chic Anderson describing his stretch run as "like a machine" as Secretariat set a track record of 2:24 for the one mile and one-half.
That was 1973. Just four years later undefeated Seattle Slew, with unpopular Jean Cruguet in the irons, became the tenth Triple Crown champion, a crowning achievement for his young trainer, Billy Turner.
A year later, in 1978, few predicted that there would be another Triple Crown winner since the year’s two outstanding sophomores, Affirmed and Alydar, appeared to have equal abilities.
When they met in the Kentucky Derby, the public’s choice was Alydar, who went postward at 6-5 odds while Affirmed was listed at 9-5. With 16-year-old jockey Steve Cauthen wearing the colors of owner-breeder Harbor View Farm, Affirmed made a quick move on the turn to take the lead from Believe It and held Alydar safe by a length and one-half at the finish line.
Shrewd trainer Laz Barrera warned Cauthen to expect Alydar to make an earlier move in the Preakness and he was correct. Sent off as the 1-2 choice, Affirmed stalked the early pace and found himself in front midway down the backstretch. Cauthen eased the reins a bit to save his mount for the expected challenge from Alydar. On the turn, Jorge Velasquez, following the instructions of Trainer John Veitch, moved Alydar into contention and went head-to-head with Affirmed through the stretch. The photograph showed Affirmed in front by a neck at the wire.
Frustrated, but not discouraged, Veitch and Velasquez decided that to be successful in the Belmont Stakes they needed to engage Affirmed with Alydar earlier in the contest and then wear down their nemesis. There were only three other starters in the race and they could be ignored, the Alydar team decided.
The fans at the Elmont, Long Island, track, knew that something special was in the works. The track had scheduled an exciting undercard filled with stakes races.
When the betting stopped for the Belmont, Affirmed was held at 3-5 while Alydar, who carried the devil red and blue colors of famed Calumet Farm, was listed at 11-10.
As expected, Affirmed broke on top and took a short lead with Alydar right after him. But, Affirmed’s one-length lead quickly dissipated down the backstretch when Velasquez moved his charge to challenge the leader. Head-to-head they raced with the fans cheering so loudly that the announcer’s call could not be heard.
At the head of Belmont’s long stretch they remained tied to each other until the eighth pole when it appeared that Alydar had taken the lead and just might pull away. But, with Cauthen riding the race of his career, Affirmed found that something extra and fought back.
When the two adversaries crossed the finish line, Affirmed’s head was in front, thus completing the Triple Crown feat that would not be duplicated for more than a quarter century.
Affirmed was voted Horse of the Year for his Triple Crown victories in 1978 and repeated as racing’s top performer in 1979 with six consecutive Grade I wins.
Last year, New Yorkers turned out in droves to support the New York-bred Funny Cide as he chased that elusive Triple Crown designation, despite atrocious weather. The rain turned the track into a sloppy mess, possibly hindering Funny Cide’s chances. He finished third to the winner, Empire Maker.
On Saturday, Smarty Jones will attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown champion. It appeared at press time that he would face no more than a half-dozen challengers. But one of those challengers will be Rock Hard Ten, who failed to qualify for the Kentucky Derby because of insufficient earnings but who was a solid runnerup to Smarty Jones in the Preakness.
Maybe fans will be treated to a replay of the 1978 Belmont with the Preakness exacta horses putting on an Affirmed/Alydar kind of finish. If so, racing will be the better for it.