Thursday, June 10, 2010

June 10, 1978: Heads apart

ELMONT, N.Y. - As the horses left the starting gate for the 1978 Belmont, everybody's eyes were on the horses in post positions 2 and 3, Alydar and Affirmed. They had been the story all that year, and all the previous year, and that wouldn't change today. As the five horses exited the first turn, it was Affirmed and Alydar, heads apart, leading the way.

It's almost impossible to talk about Affirmed without talking about Alydar. These two horses dominated the racing world in 1977 and 1978 with their incredible, storybook rivalry. They raced each other 10 times as 2- and 3-year-olds, and every time but once, they finished 1-2 in the race.

Affirmed, the great-great grandson of triple crown winner War Admiral and great-great-great grandson of the legendary Man O'War, got the better of the two more often as a 2-year-old, winning four of his six meetings with Alydar. The races all seemed to follow a similar pattern: Affirmed would get out to a seemingly comfortable lead, and then Alydar would make a move near the top of the stretch to try to run him down. Whether he succeeded seemed to depend on the length of the race - the two races that Alydar had won were the longest of their series.

After seeing each other six times as 2-year-olds, Affirmed and Alydar avoided each other in the months leading up to the 1978 Kentucky Derby, but when they met again, they kept form, with Affirmed holding off a late Alydar charge to win by 1 1/2 lengths. The same thing happened in the Preakness, but the margin was closer, with Affirmed winning by a neck.

And so came the Belmont, the ninth and most anticipated meeting between the two rivals. Many people though Alydar had a legitimate chance to stop Affirmed's quest for a triple crown because of the Belmont's extended length, figuring he'd have more time to catch his rival.

Affirmed's jockey, Steve Cauthen, knew what Alydar would try to do, so when Affirmed took his usual spot at the front of the field early in the Belmont, Cauthen slowed things down, running at a slow pace to conserve his horse's energy for the final stretch. Meanwhile, Alydar uncharacteristically went up to the front with Affirmed, determined to keep the great horse within striking distance near the end.

The result was a dual for the ages, as Affirmed and Alydar spent the final mile of the race heads apart. As the pace picked up, and the other three horses were left in the dust, the two great thoroughbreds positioned themselves for the stretch run, Affirmed on the inside, Alydar on the outside, heads apart.

In the middle of the stretch, Alydar poked his head in front. It seemed Affirmed was tiring, and that the common belief that the longer race would benefit Alydar seemed to be coming true. Then, Cauthen switched to a left-hand whip, something he had never done with Affirmed before. Affirmed jumped back into the lead, keeping his nose in front as they crossed the finish line, heads apart and forever linked in history.

Affirmed will be remembered as the 11th - and to this point, last - Triple Crown winner. But he will always be remembered in the same breath as his great rival. Alydar will also go down in history - he is the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races.

This link doesn't allow imbedding, but here's the race:

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