Every time Steve Cauthen watches a videotape of Affirmed narrowly beating Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, the former jockey gets chills.
“It was the most exciting race I ever rode in,” Cauthen said the other day. “Just the buildup to it was unbelievable. Usually the anticipation is greater than the real thing, but that Belmont was the exception.”
Affirmed, who clinched the Triple Crown with his third win in five weeks against the resilient Alydar, is still going strong at 22 on a Kentucky breeding farm, and Cauthen, at 37, hasn’t strayed too far from the racing milieu either. Retired from riding since 1993, when a contract disagreement with a rich Arabian owner pushed him out of the saddle, Cauthen is associate vice president at Turfway Park near Cincinnati, where he’s a goodwill ambassador who promotes racing via television appearances and guest-speaking engagements.
Affirmed, Cauthen and trainer Laz Barrera, who died from heart trouble at 66 in 1991, were a magical triumvirate that gave racing its most recent Triple Crown champion. Cauthen rode the hair off Affirmed in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and they squeaked out wins over Alydar in the most hotly contested Triple Crown series ever. Affirmed won the Derby by 1 1/2 lengths, a gaping margin in comparison to the next two races. Alydar was always closing the gap, but still couldn’t quite get there. Affirmed beat him by a neck in the Preakness, and then Alydar lost the Belmont Stakes by a nose, after running stride-for-stride with Cauthen’s horse for the final seven furlongs of the 1 1/2 miles.
Cauthen, now the squire of Verona, Ky., where he lives with his wife and two daughters, will be far from Belmont Park on Saturday when a pretty good rivalry in its own right will be renewed in the 129th running of the Belmont Stakes. He’ll watch on television when Silver Charm, winner of the Derby and the Preakness, tries to wedge his way into the Triple Crown pantheon that includes Affirmed and only 10 other horses. Playing the role of a latter-day Alydar is Free House, the California-bred overachiever who was third--3 1/2 lengths behind Silver Charm--in the Derby and then couldn’t get the nose bob and lost by a head in the Preakness. Just like the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry, this latest matchup had its beginnings before the Triple Crown. Silver Charm holds a 3-2 edge, but Free House is the last horse to beat him, the second of two consecutive wins coming in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5.
“Silver Charm has a legit chance to [win the Triple Crown], and it would be good for racing if he does,” Cauthen said. “He’s not much better than the other horses [Free House and Captain Bodgit, who was second in the Derby and third in the Preakness before a tendon injury ended his career], but he’s got grit on his side and he’s got a lot of pluses, including being able to be easily placed in a race. He seems to be the people’s horse. He may be a horse of destiny.”
Affirmed, like Silver Charm, could be “easily placed,” and his tactical speed helped seal Alydar’s fate in the Derby and the Preakness.
Affirmed was on a five-race winning streak going into the Kentucky Derby, the last two victories coming in the Santa Anita and Hollywood derbies, but he was 9-5 and Alydar went off the 6-5 favorite at Churchill Downs. Affirmed had beaten Alydar four out of six times as a 2-year-old, but a California shipper hadn’t won the Kentucky Derby in nine years. Alydar, the home-grown Kentucky-bred, was the popular horse in Louisville. He was ridden by the veteran Jorge Velasquez, and Cauthen, despite being the sensation of 1977, was a teenager who had never ridden in the Derby.
“We were confident going into the Derby, but not overconfident,” Cauthen said. “We knew that if Alydar kicked on the way he did in Florida, he’d give us trouble.”
Affirmed’s quickness overcame all the negatives that the bettors had ascribed. After three-quarters of a mile, he was in third place, in the garden spot, while Alydar lagged toward the rear of the field, 13 lengths from the lead. It seems remarkable now that Alydar even finished second, and Cauthen had to work hard with Affirmed through the stretch to preserve their lead.
Two weeks later, in the Preakness, Affirmed snatched the lead after only half a mile, and the late-running Alydar again closed valiantly for one of the closest finishes in the Pimlico race.
Barrera would later fire Cauthen off Affirmed, replacing him with Laffit Pincay early in 1979, after his horse’s losing streak reached four races, but in 1978 he was Cauthen’s biggest supporter.
“That kid can really ride,” the malaprop-prone Barrera said. “When his career took off, it took off like a flying sausage.”
The Preakness was a tougher race for Affirmed than the Derby.
“We suspected that [trainer John Veitch] would attack us early in the Belmont and try to wear us down,” Cauthen said. “But I had no idea that Alydar would be with us as soon as seven furlongs out. After that, it was cat-and-mouse all the way.”
There were 65,417 fans--fifth highest crowd in the history of the track--at Belmont that day, and most of them were on their feet for the entire race.
“When Alydar cruised up to us on the backstretch, I heard the crowd roar,” Cauthen said. “In all my career, I never heard the crowd that often.”
At the top of the stretch, the horses were still locked together, Affirmed on the inside. The Daily Racing Form’s chart shows that Affirmed led all the way, but Alydar pulled even between calls and stuck his nose in front with about an eighth of a mile left.
Cauthen had ridden Affirmed 10 times before the Belmont, but he had never hit him left-handed with his whip.
“I never needed to,” he said. “But my horse was getting tired and Alydar kept dogging us. So I switched sticks and started hitting him left-handed. He dug down deep then. It was nip and tuck the rest of the way. We finished a head in front, but I had the feeling that Affirmed was never going to let Alydar get by.”
The winning time was 2:26 4/5, at the time the second-fastest clocking for the Belmont, slower than only Secretariat’s world-record 2:24 in 1973.
“Affirmed was very tired after the race,” Cauthen said. “His head was practically hanging to the floor.”
Affirmed lost 72 pounds from his pre-Derby weight. The high-octane Barrera, who also suffered from ulcers, was also pooped. Affirmed’s owners, Louis and Patrice Wolfson, gave a Triple Crown party the night of the Belmont, and their trainer had to go home early.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Barrera would say years later. “I had such a migraine headache that night that I just couldn’t take any more.”
Before his death in 1990, Alydar had been a better sire than Affirmed, his offspring including Alysheba and Strike The Gold. Affirmed, standing at Jonabell Farm in Lexington, Ky., hasn’t done badly, siring 62 stakes winners and 11 champions.
Cauthen, unable to buy a winner at Santa Anita the winter of 1978-79, signed a personal-services contract with Robert Sangster and moved to England to ride. He was a three-time champion over there, and his win aboard Slip Anchor in 1985 made him the only jockey to ride winners of both the Kentucky and Epsom derbies. He won a second derby at Epsom with Reference Point in 1987, and in 1994 he was elected to the American Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He never rode in another Kentucky Derby after Affirmed’s year, and his last Triple Crown appearance was a fourth-place finish in the Belmont with Cristofori, a French import, in 1992.
Before signing with Sangster, Cauthen went through a losing streak of more than 100 races at Santa Anita.
“When the chance to go to England came along, I figured I had nothing to lose,” he said.
In 1977, Cauthen won three Eclipse Awards, becoming the first jockey to rack up more than $6 million in purses. His home in Verona is only 10 miles from Walton, the town where he grew up.
Silver Charm’s flirtation with Triple Crown history has revived an interest in Affirmed and Cauthen.
“It had been pretty quiet for several years,” Cauthen said. “But in the weeks leading up to this Belmont, I’ve gotten hundreds of calls. I haven’t seen the videotape of Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont for a year or two, but now, because of Silver Charm, it’s all coming back again. Silver Charm can do it, but it won’t be easy. The Triple Crown is not easy to win. It never has and it never will be.”