Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 41 Days to Go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 41 Days to Go!

Affirmed was a Florida-bred that was the last Triple Crown winner until 2015, when American Pharoah would break the drought of 37 years. The 1978 Triple Crown was a series that featured a showdown between Affirmed and his rival Alydar, a horse that trainer Laz Barrera would say that Affirmed needed to make him run. The two would race ten times throughout their careers, with Affirmed winning 7 of their battles.

Bred and owned by Louis and Patrice Wolfson’s Harbor View Farm, the shiny chestnut was by Exclusive Native, who was also the sire of 1980 Kentucky Derby winner, Genuine Risk. Wolfson owned Exclusive Native, and having had success in breeding Crafty Admiral mares to his stallion, he sought out more. Finding the mare Won’t Tell You at auction, he purchased her for $18,000. The resulting foal was named Affirmed, a brave yearling that caught the eye in the field of youngsters, with his copper coat and white blaze. Sent to Harbor View’s new contract trainer Laz Barerra, the trainer of 1976 Derby winner Bold Forbes, the young pupil would take to his training, being prepared to take to the track for his maiden race in May of 1977. After winning his first start easily by 4 ½ lengths, Affirmed was moved up to stakes company.

In the Youthful Stakes, Affirmed would have his first meeting with the Calumet colt Alydar, winning the 5 1/2 furlong race while Alydar finished 5th. In both colts' next start, they would face off again in the Great American, a race that Alydar would win by 3 ½ lengths over Affirmed. After the race, Affirmed would be shipped to California to continue his campaign, where he won the Hollywood Juvenile easily by 7 lengths. Returning to Saratoga, the chestnut then took the Sanford before contesting the Hopeful. In the Hopeful the two rivals would again face off; this time the result was a stretch battle that the two would soon become famous for, with them dueling on even terms until Affirmed would pull away to win by a half-length, setting a new stakes record in 1:15 2/5 for the 6 1/2-furlongs.

In the Futurity, the two would square off in yet another stretch altercation, with Affirmed again pulling off the victory, although it was only by a nose. In the Champagne, a race that was contested over a sloppy track, Alydar would turn the tables on his rival, passing under the wire a length and a quarter in front. It would be the final time that Alydar would be in front of Affirmed as they passed under the finish. In his final contest at two, Affirmed would meet Alydar in the Laurel Futurity, a race that showed how much better the two colts were than their other competitors. Mixing it up down the stretch, the two went head-to-head, 10 lengths in front of the field, passing under the wire with Affirmed the victor by a neck. Having won 7 of his 9 starts at two - with 4 over Alydar and the two losses to Alydar - Affirmed would earn the 2YO Male Championship.

Affirmed was ridden by Steve Cauthen, who turned 18 just five days before the Kentucky Derby. The Kentuckian was known as the $6 million dollar man, as he was the first jockey to ride horses that won over $6 million the year prior. He also broke Jorge Velasquez’s record for number of New York winners, Velasquez being Alydar’s jockey. Cauthen is the only jockey to be voted Sport’s Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, while also having been the only jockey to win the Italian, French, Irish, Epsom, and Kentucky Derby’s. The Walton, Kentucky youngster earned the nickname of “Stevie Wonder” for the amazing riding skills he possessed at such an early age.

The 1978 season would see Affirmed running on the West Coast, while Alydar would take the Florida/Kentucky route to the Derby. Both horses would win their preps coming into the race. Alydar would win the Flamingo, Florida Derby, and Blue Grass, while Affirmed would win the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, and Hollywood Derby. His purse money of $700,127, was the most at the time for any horse coming into the Derby. Though Affirmed had proved the better of the two in the majority of their meetings, Alydar would go off as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby field of eleven horses.

In the running, Cauthen would keep Affirmed about five lengths off of the pace while Alydar didn’t handle the track early. At the top of the stretch Affirmed and Cauthen would take the lead from Believe It, as Alydar started to make his move. Neither horse would switch leads in the stretch; however it wasn’t an issue as Alydar’s move proved too late with Affirmed cruising to the win by 1 1/2 lengths over his rival. The time was 2:01 1/5 over the fast track, the 5th fastest Derby at the time. The Preakness would see the two spar in yet another of their stretch duels after Velasquez kept his mount closer to the pace. Affirmed would pull away to win by a neck over Alydar, with the time for the mile and 3/16th just 2/5 off of the track record, in 1:54 2/5.

The Belmont would see their greatest of battles. They would start slow; however the two would begin to battle with three-quarters of a mile left in the grueling 1 ½ mile race. Alydar’s trainer, John Veitch knew that many horses had won the Belmont when they were allowed to set a soft pace on the lead, resulting in his instructing Velasquez to put the pressure on Affirmed. When Alydar drew alongside Affirmed, the two began to quicken the pace, going back and forth. With an eighth of a mile to go, Alydar would pull in front by a nose. Affirmed and Cauthen were crowded to the inside by Velasquez and Alydar, leading to Cauthen deciding to switch whip hands, something that he hadn’t done previously. The change would cause Affirmed to respond; digging deep, they would again pass Alydar to win by a head. They would finish running the fastest last mile of the race at the time, covering the mile and a half in 2:26 4/5, the third fastest running. After the Belmont, Barrera was quoted as saying, “Alydar, he fight like a tiger. As long as I live, I never see two horses fight like this. It’s nice to win the Triple Crown, but I suffer for it the last 3/8 of a mile”. It was the shortest gap between Triple Crown winners, with 1977 going to Seattle Slew.

Affirmed would rest until August after the Triple Crown run, returning to win the Jim Dandy. His next race was the Travers, which was his last race with Alydar. In the final turn, Affirmed would cut Alydar off in route to a length and ¾ win, which led to the stewards disqualifying Affirmed, giving the victory to Alydar. Affirmed would meet Seattle Slew in the Marlboro Cup, the first time two Triple Crown winners would race against each other. Seattle Slew would win the race, yet Affirmed was diagnosed with a throat virus after the race. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, they would face each other again, with misfortune striking once more as Affirmed’s saddle slipped during the race. Exceller would go on to battle Slew in one of the greatest stretch battles, defeating not one, but two Triple Crown winners. Affirmed would finish his 3YO year with a record of 11 starts, 8 wins, and 2 seconds, with earnings of $901,541. He was the youngest horse to win $1 million after winning the Kentucky Derby. The Harbor View color-bearer also earned the award for 3YO Champion Male and Horse of the Year.

Affirmed’s 4YO season began with a 3rd in the Malibu in addition to a 2nd in the San Fernando. Cauthen was replaced with Laffit Pincay, Jr, with both jockeys saying that Affirmed was the best horse that they had ridden. Affirmed wouldn’t lose another race. He won the Strub, prior to starting in the Santa Anita Handicap, a race that saw him set a record for the mile and ¼ of 1:58 3/5 that would stand until 2014. In taking the Hollywood Gold Cup, Affirmed would break the earnings record. In contesting the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Affirmed would face the 1979 Kentucky Derby Champion, Spectacular Bid. The Bid would mount four challenges on Affirmed during the race, with Affirmed turning him away each time. As the two passed under the wire, Affirmed became the first horse to earn $1 million in a season, with Spectacular Bid becoming the second with his placing ¾ of a length behind the Champion.

Affirmed would win 7 of 9 races in 1979, with a second and third, and earnings of $1,148,000. Overall he won $2,393,818, becoming the first horse to win $2 million. His campaign earned Affirmed the awards for Older Male and Horse of the Year for a second time. He was syndicated for $14.4 million, beginning his stallion duties at Calumet with his old rival, Alydar. From Calumet, Affirmed was relocated to Jonabell (now Darley), where he stood for 10 years. As a stallion, Affirmed sired another Triple Crown winner in Peteski, the Canadian Triple Crown winner, in addition to the 2-time Champion turf mare, Flawlessly. In 2001 Affirmed would pass away due to issues with laminitis. He is buried whole at the farm with his owner’s pink silks. As he was buried, John Williams, an associate of the Wolfson’s, said, “Well, Alydar was really happy until about 15 minutes ago…Now he’s going to have to start running.”

(Photo courtesy of the KDM archives)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum