“Not since Jack Britton and Ted (Kid) Lewis made slugging each other their life work has there been a rivalry in sports to captivate the public like the continuing duel between the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and his indefatigable pursuer, Alydar.”
Leave it to the legendary Red Smith to characterize so perfectly the nature of the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar; leave it to him to characterize so perfectly the nature of Alydar, the “indefatigable pursuer,” following the 1978 Preakness. In that race, Affirmed had once again asserted his dominance, beating Alydar for the sixth time in eight contests. Yet, as William Leggett observed in Sports Illustrated, “In their eight meetings, the two have run more than seven miles against each other and the total distance separating them at the wire is less than three lengths.”
Smith—a guy who knew horse racing, a guy who knew sports–alluded to Notre Dame and Army football, to Secretariat and Swaps, to Nashua and Sham, to Man o’ War and John P. Grier. “None of these,” he wrote, “was a patch on the saga of Alydar and Affirmed.”
They first met in the Youthful Stakes at Belmont; it was Affirmed’s second start and Alydar’s first, a mark of his connections high hopes. Affirmed, owned by Louis and Patrice Wolfson and trained by Laz Barrera, had easily won his debut at Belmont, and he won this first stakes race by a neck. Calumet’s Affirmed finished fifth; in his next 22 starts, the John Veitch-trained son of Raise a Native would never be worse than second. Raise a Native had passed his genes to Affirmed, too, through Affirmed’s sire Exclusive Native.
Those watching the Youthful at Belmont in June of 1977, those who saw the two juveniles take to the track together for the first time, couldn’t have had any idea of what would unfold over the next year. Two chestnuts, from the same sire line, with alliteratively mellifluous names. Surely, the racing gods had scripted this one?
After facing each other six times as two-year-olds (score: Affirmed 4, Alydar 2), Affirmed and Alydar took separate paths to the 1978 Kentucky Derby, no doubt heightening the anticipation of their inevitable reunion. Affirmed went the California route, racking up wins in the San Felipe, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Hollywood Derby; Alydar stayed east, emerging victorious from the Flamingo, the Florida Derby, and the Blue Grass.
When they finally met as three-year-olds on the first Saturday in May 1978, Affirmed again beat Alydar; the runner-up apparently didn’t take to the track, but managed to close quickly from 17th to lose by a length and a half. The Preakness was a tighter affair, with Alydar losing by a heartbreaking neck.
Even with a Triple Crown on the line for a second consecutive year, this rivalry garnered as much attention as Affirmed’s win. “It was a renewal of the equine war,” wrote Steve Cady in a New York Times article in which he noted that in 30 of the colts’ combined 31 starts, they had finished first or second. In the Daily Racing Form, Joe Hirsch observed the inseparability—and the greatness– of the two horses in an article called “Put Affirmed-Alydar Rivalry With Best in Sport’s History,” echoing Red Smith’s sentiments expressed the day before. “The greatest chapter [in racing rivalries],” wrote Hirsch, “…may be the one currently being written by Affirmed and Alydar…It isn’t possible to praise Affirmed without praising Alydar…”
Of course, Affirmed went on to beat Alydar—by a head!–in that year’s thrilling Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown; later that summer at Saratoga, Affirmed crossed the finish line before Alydar in the Travers but was placed second through disqualification.
And that was it. Both horses went on to run at four: Affirmed won four Grade 1 races in California, and came back east to win the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup before being retired at the end of his four-year-old campaign. Alydar won an allowance and a Grade 3, finishing second—again!—in the Oaklawn Handicap and the Carter, and third in the Suburban. After the Travers, they never faced each other again. Final score: Affirmed 7, Alydar 3. And in nine of those ten races, they finished one-two.
The 1989 Triple Crown series would bring us Sunday Silence and Easy Goer—and they will appear in this space as we get closer to the Belmont—but they met for the first time in the Kentucky Derby; their short-lived but intense rivalry, while gripping, can’t compare to the competition to which Alydar and Affirmed treated racing fans over the course of a year.
Quoted in the Daily Racing Form’s Champions, Woody Stephens called Affirmed and Alydar “the greatest act horse racing has ever had. I hope it never ends.” He wasn’t the only one.