Horse Racing’s Greatest Rivalry: Affirmed vs. Alydar

Feb 25, 2009 28 Comments by


Two chestnut colts made history in 1978. Affirmed, the last horse to win thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, and his arch-rival Alydar whose unmatched feat was to run second in all three Triple Crown races.

I wasn’t around yet in 1978, so I had never heard of Alydar until I got Ace last summer and checked out his pedigree. Others who knew better than me were thrilled to discover that Alydar was Ace’s paternal grand-sire, so I’ve been researching ever since.

Affirmed, owned by Harbor View Farm, and Alydar, owned by Calumet Farm, raced each other a total of 10 times throughout their two and three year old seasons. Seven of those races went to Affirmed, who had the grit to hold off Alydar in their constant head-to-head duels. As two year olds, Affirmed beat Alydar in the Youthful Stakes, Hopeful Futurity, and Laurel Futurity to take the 1977 Eclipse Award for 2-Year-Old Champion. Alydar edged out Affirmed in the Great American and the Champagne.

Affirmed and Alydar Duke It Out In the Triple Crown

As 3-year-olds, Affirmed and Alydar met for the first time at the Kentucky Derby. Alydar ran in the Florida prep races, winning the Flamingo Stakes, the Florida Derby, and the Blue Grass (by 13 lengths!). Affirmed went to California and won the San Felipe Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, and the Hollywood Derby.

Bettors made Alydar the slight favorite headed into the Kentucky Derby. The typically front-running Affirmed didn’t take the lead until the stretch, while the stalker Alydar rallied from 9th place to fall short by 1 and 1/2 lengths. It’s pretty amazing to watch both horses rally from behind to run first and second. And if Alydar had made his move a little bit sooner, or if the race had been just a little bit longer, it very well might have been his.

Watch Affirmed and Alydar in the 1978 Kentucky Derby

Speed-horse Affirmed went into the starting gate for the Preakness as the favorite, took the lead by the 1/4 mile pole, and never gave it up. Alydar was thrilling to watch as, at the half mile marker, he started to move up from sixth place making the other horses look as if they were standing still. He latched on and went after Affirmed in the homestretch, but ran out of race a neck short.

Watch the thrilling finish between Alydar and Affirmed in the 1978 Preakness

The race that officially put Affirmed into the record books was another heartbreaker for the Alydar camp. Only three other horses ran against the two powerhouses in the the third and final leg of the Triple Crown. They were left in the dust as the 1978 Belmont Stakes became a match race between the two rivals. Running one and two for the whole race, Alydar got his head in front at top of the homestretch. Affirmed took back the lead, and the two went head-to-head towards the wire. But a head was all it took for Affirmed to reach the wire first.

Watch Affirmed and Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes

The Final Match Up

Affirmed and Alydar only met once more after the Triple Crown, at the Travers at Saratoga. Affirmed, not surprisingly, was the favorite. Alydar was second to Affirmed at the wire (again), but was declared the winner when Affirmed was disqualified. Half way through the race, Alydar was aiming for a hole that had opened up in front of him when Affirmed’s jockey gunned it and angled for the hole, causing Alydar to almost fall. After an inquiry and jockey’s objection, Affirmed finally found out what it felt like to place second to Alydar – sort of.

That was their last meeting as Alydar was injured shortly after and laid off for a long time. He came back at age 4 but was never quite the same and retired after six races. Affirmed won the Eclipse Award for Champion 3 Year Old of 1978 as well as Horse of the Year. He went on to at age 4 to win over a million dollars to become racing’s first winner of over $2 million and won the Eclipse Awards for Champion Older Horse of 1979 and Horse of the Year again. Both were eventually elected to the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.

Revenge In The Breeding Shed

While Affirmed was the winning rival on the track, Alydar got his revenge in the breeding shed. With a stud fee likely well over $100,000, he sired 706 foals, with 520 making it to the race track and averaging $113,665 in earnings and a total of $59,105,824. Successful offspring include Easy Goer, Alysheba, Turkoman, and Althea. He was euthanized in 1990 after breaking his leg in a mysterious stall accident. His death is apparently still being investigated as it may have been a part of the Calumet Farm bankrupcy scandal.

Affirmed stood at stud for a $30,000. In 18 seasons at stud, he sired 808 foals. 560 made it to the races for an average of $65,177 in earning and a total of $36,238,158. He was euthanized in 2001 due to laminitis, a result of trying to recover from a ligament injury in his opposite foreleg.

My Alydar grandson has his grand-sire’s legs and head, as well as identical white socks on his front left and back right legs. While Alydar may have come out second on the track, he’d be my pick on a pedigree. He’s also been a successful sire of jumpers as well as racehorses, so it’s exciting for him to be a close relative of my boy.

As exciting as it is to read about these two great horses and watch the videos, it had to be so much more thrilling to experience this great rivalry first-hand. If you were around in 1978 to see these two great horses run, what was it like? If you are watching these races for the first time, what is your impression? Are Alydar and Affirmed worthy of being named thoroughbred racing’s greatest rivalry?

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28 Responses to “Horse Racing’s Greatest Rivalry: Affirmed vs. Alydar”

  1. Horse Bits - Horse Bits - Club Equestrian says:

    […] is an interesting debate: Which rivalry was Thoroughbred racing’s biggest rivalry? I found an interesting article regarding Affirmed and Alydar, and I believe I would probably agree with the writer about this being the greatest rivalry. The […]

  2. greyhorsematters says:

    These two horses were indeed one of the greatest rivalries in horse racing. Two magnificent horses with the heart to win. I was around then (obviously) but I don’t specifically remember all the races. We used to watch them (mom & me) but I just don’t recall all the races I’ve seen, I just remember the impressions of those two being great horses.

  3. Lois McCloud says:

    What two great horses, so evenly matched, finely bred! I can’t think of a tougher rivalry in my lifetime. I confess I don’t have much of a personal recollection of their races myself. I was in college at the time, so Lord knows what I was doing at the time. It wasn’t watching horseracing on T.V. as I would have at home. In the past year I have been doing a lot of research on Affirmed and Alydar. I became interested in historic thoroughbreds for the same reason.
    I asked my uncle about the bridle with the name on it that was in grandpa’s shed. He said it was his race horse named Dr. Joe Irwin and that he was related to a horse called Zev. Zev was Horse of the year in 1923, won the 1923 Derby, 1923 Belmont, was injured in the Preakness, and in 1924 was the first horse to earn over $300,000. He was a great horse like Affirmed but did not produce much as a sire. I was so excited over this I kept reading and trying to pull up Dr, Joe’s pedigree. I did a lot of reading about John E. Madden and his farm Hamburg Place and the horses he was breeding at the time. Zev was bred by Madden as was Sir Barton, the first horse to win the Triple Crown. Madden bred & sold a lot of great horses. He was the top breeder of thoroughbreds for 11 yrs.
    I kept reading about all these great old horses and I eventually worked my way to Alydar & Affirmed. They looked almost alike and were bred very closely. Both horses were bred out of the Native Dancer Line and a Man O’War line in their Paternal sides. Yes, both horses. On Affirmed’s maternal side there was a strong Man O War line to his Dam as well as Bull Dog, the sire of Bull Lea (a great and prolific sire. Alydar’s maternal line had two separate lines of Bull Lea, one going to his sire and dam. They were great horses bred of great horses. Not all sires can reproduce their kind like Native Dance and Man O War. Some are just great racers. Mares from great sires often pass on their sires characteristics to their offspring. Maybe it’s the depth of breeding in the dams that make that predominance.
    I was personally interested in these horses as it led back to the Maddens. John. E. Madden’s grand son, Preston, bought War Admiral in his final days and the last colt he produced was a filly named Belthazar and she raised 10 foals, one of whom was Belsheba. She raced well and retired to Hamburg Place where she was bred to Alydar and produced the great Alysheba.
    Both Alydar & Affirmed were retired to Calumet farm in adjoining stalls. Unfortunately Ayldar met with a suspiscous death in his stal when Calumet was headed toward Banckrupcy and Alydar was insured for 36 million dollars.
    My personal quest for Dr. Joe Irwins’ pedigree came to an end. I kept putting combinations of Maddens’s horses in the pedigree database and one day it popped up. Dr. Joe’s breeding was even better than I imagined. His grandsire on his paternal side is Fair Play. Fair Play is the sire of Man O War! I’m so proud that we have a little piece of thoroughbred history in the family. He was a poor farmer in West Virginia during the great Depression and he was a good judge of horse flesh. He was able to buy the horse because he was hurt. He cared for him until he was sound and then he raced him locally. Dr. Joe Irwin was a winner.

  4. Reggie Kemp says:

    I was around during those races. Like most people, I am only a racing fan during the triple crown. The country had just finished being totally swept off our collective feet by Seattle Slew, so interest in that year’s triple Crown was already high. I remember watching the Derby and the fight these two horses waged. It was thrilling. Noting the comeback Alydar made at the end, many naysayers immediately started talking about the longer races; would Alydar close better? could Affirmed hold him off? I thought for sure that with a little more track Alydar would win the next race.

    As a casual race fan, I only hoped the second leg would be as entertaining as the first. Was it ever! No matter how hard Alydar charged, Affirmed seemed to match him. It was a two horse race that set up what was to be a very dramatic Belmont.

    Sometimes when you have a heavily hyped sports event, the actual event doesn’t match the hype. Again as a casual fan, I hoped for another thriller. I mean, I only watch three races a year, can you blame me for wanting them to last me the whole year?

    The Belmont, along with the other races, has lasted me a lifetime.

    Everytime the Derby comes around I think back to 1978. Just like the Preakness, the Belmont became a two horse race very quickly. I read afterwards that the race had one of the slowest starts in history, but it got faster and faster, and finished as one of the fastest Belmonts of all time (the fastest final leg in history). I don’t know, but it may also have been the closest. It was awesome! This is a story I could see over and over again. I think it would make a great movie.

  5. Tricia says:

    I wasn’t into horse racing at the time but my husband was and we went on in a 20 year span of owning over 50 race horses in our lifetime. I started to be interested in horse racing in 1982 and it just took off from there. We started with one we wanted to purchase called Sweet Misses. There is a long story from there but I will have to say owning race horses has to be one of the most thrilling times in my life. Unless you have experienced the thrill of watching your horse come down the stretch either as a late runner or battling there is nothing to match the exhillaration.
    From all of my years of experience of which I still feel I am no where qualified to match up to the experts, but watching and re-watching the battle between Affirmed and Alydar I would have to say that Alydar is what I would call a secondnitis horse. An incredible stallion that can’t seem to get past that last horse to win the race.
    Thank You for allowing your readers to post their remarks…..I hope I am alive to see the next Triple Crown Winner. Although after today it won’t happen in 2009…

  6. 2009 Belmont Stakes: Contenders, Post Time, TV Coverage, Triple Crown Jockey Calvin Borel. | Regarding Horses says:

    […] 2009 Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing may just be the most memorable since Affirmed beat out rival Alydar to take the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes 31 years ago. Since, no horse has […]

  7. Horse Racing Systems says:

    Such magnificent horses! It would have been nice to have seen them. And yes, these two horses were indeed one among the greatest rivalries.

  8. Linda says:

    Oh my gosh…..I just found out that I have a great grand-daughter to Alydar in my pasture. Scarlet totally has his legs and head. When I saw Alydars face for the first time (this AM) It was like looking at a picture of my Scarlet. What on earth do I do with this kind of info. ??? She’s been a trail horse for my husband, because he’s the only one who could handle her when she was younger. She’s still got alot of spunk, but has matured and calmed down enough for my daughter to ride her. She’s long legged, fast and stops on a dime. We’ve always thought she would be a fabulous gamer. I just sold her life long pal, and am looking to sell Scarlet too……or should I re-think this one?????

  9. piningaurello says:

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  10. Bonnie says:

    I have a Alydar grandson and where as he didn’t have the best racing career, he is still an amazing TB.

  11. traildiva says:

    Hi, I have a great grand daughter of Alydar. She is also a Dash for Cash horse. She came to my horse rescue after being run on the track and injured in a fence. At the age of 7 she is one of my best horses. A bay beauty, she sails across the pasture with ease and good speed still today. Missy would be a great brood mare for anyone looking for speed and size in their colts
    While she is up for adoption, I would loathe to part with this loving, graceful and wonderful mare.

  12. Randy Mitchell says:

    I’m not a horse race guy. I don’t know a bridle from a saddle. But, I’m a 58 year old sports guy. I remember vividly the Triple Crown of ’78. It was one of the most exciting sports memories that I possess (and, I’ve been to 44 consecutive Indy 500s and countless of other ball and bat sport events). The videos were a great reminder of the excitement and drama. Two great athletes going heat to head and there was no loser or “2nd place”. Randy

  13. Claude says:

    I’m looking around the internet for information here on the eve of the 2011 Preakness. I watched the 78 Preakness and was surprised that Alydar and Affirmed raced at the same time! Then I searched Alydar and came here where I learned all about those two. I have seen quite a few past performance sheets from Brisnet and I always look at the breeding – Alydar comes up much more than Affirmed and I always assumed he won at least one triple crown race…
    Thanks for the information. claude

  14. Roberto says:

    Without Affirmed, Alydar may have also been a Triple Crown winner

  15. KAkerley says:

    At 12 years old, I was already a huge fan of thoroghbred racing and will never forget the races. Alydar was my pick and to this day I will never be convinced he wasn’t the better horse. I agree that if Affirmed hadn’t been running, Alydar would have been a Triple Crown winner. However, I don’t know if Affirmed would have been able to do it without Alydar!

  16. Averie HoRsEy CrAzY! says:

    Affirmed and Alydar in my opinion had the greatest rivalry in the history of the sport. I got into horse racing at the beginning of the year and i read books on multiple racehorses including Secretariat, Seabiscuit, and the new book on Affirmed. I watched all the videos of their meet ups. The most recent book i got was the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century by bloodhorse magazine. Affirmed and Alydar of course were both in it! Affirmed ranks #12 while Alydar ranks #27, but two of Alydar’s sons are also on the list, Easy Goer at #34 and Alysheba at #42. None of Affirmed’s offspring are on the list (Though Affirmed did sire the Canadian Triple Crown winner Peteski.) I never got to see Affirmed and Alydar at the races. Alydar had already passed away 7 years before i was born and Affirmed died when i was only 3. I think they had the greatest rivalry because no two other horses that had a rivalry had such an amazing and close, anticipating ones like Affirmed and Alydar did!

  17. Dairn says:

    This triple crown is the first I can remember betting on. I lost all three times as I took Alydar in each race. I have been an admirer of horse racing ever since, mostly because of watching this rivalry. In later years I won some money back by betting on Alysheba, so I guess Alydar came through for me in the end. Sad to hear the demise of Alydar is tainted with some possible foul play.

  18. Joyce Daugherty says:

    If you want to read a real ly good, accurate story about Alydar, get a book called, “My Racing Heart”. I can’t remember the author’s name; it was a woman. She was also an Alydar lover, of which I am proud to say I am also. There never was a better horse than him. All heart and class; that was Alydar. Brave and good, and full of spirit. And generous with his prodigious running skills. And did I mention beautiful? That he was, perfect confirmation, a lovely head and eye. I will love him forever, and forever mourn the manner of his passing. In the pantheon of great horses, Alydar is right up there with the greatest. RIP, beautiful, courageous Alydar.

  19. R.A.C.E. Fund, Inc says:

    The R.A.C.E. Fund and many loyal supporters rescued a daughter of Alydar named Promethia this past May, 2011. Join the R.A.C.E. Fund on Facebook and the Promethia Fund and read about her amazing story and recovery.

  20. Richard Foley says:

    Wonderful to see those races again. I followed Harbor View Farm horses and naturally bet on Affirmed. Steve Cauthen was the wonder boy of NY racing and the rivalry with the magnificant Alydar was incredible. I was at the Belmont Stakes and my heart was in my throat for the last mile of that epic battle. I never heard the roar of the racetrack crowd so loud! I could hardly hear the call, only “Alydar got a nose in front” as they approached the top of the stretch! When Cauthen raised his arm at the finish, we knew the winner. The Travers was a shame, everyone wanted to see those two champions go at each other again, but Pincay on Affirmed closed the rail to Alydar and caused Jorge Velazquez to pull Alydar up. Incredibly Alydar recovered and chased Affirmed to the wire, closing ground all the way. What a pair! Alydar was a hard luck horse who was murdered for insurance money, he deserved far better. Affirmed was greater because of Alydar.

  21. Randy "coddfish" Codd says:

    I remember this great horse racing rivalry so very well. Seatle Slew had captured the countries imagination with his unlikely triple crown win just the year before. All eyes were on Affirmed and Alydar and they didn’t disappoint !

    You asked about other great horse racing rivalries and two stand out in my mind. Both involve offspring of Alydar, Easy Goer and Alysheba.

    Most of you remember the epic battles between Easy Goer and Sunday Silence in 1989’s triple crown. After Sunday Silence won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he was denied the third and final jewel in the Belmont by Easy Goer. This classic rivalry is right up there with Affirmed and Alydar in my book.

    I was lucky enough to have been at Santa Anita when Ferdinand and Alysheba went head to head in the 1987 Breeder’s Cup Classic. Alysheba had won the Kentucky Derby earlier in the year and Ferdinand won it the year before. Both these great champions were battling for Horse of The Year. In as good a stretch duel as I have ever seen in a race of this magnitude, Ferdinand stuck his nose in front at the wire to win it. I’m getting chills as I type this almost 25 years later !

  22. tcfan says:

    I was blessed to witness the great races of Affirmed and Aladar.. Nail bitter everyone of them. Every since I was little I have had an obsession with the triple crown. Earlier posts sum up the amazing wonderful exciting races I have ever seen. I just watched this years races.Another rivialry in the mix??? How exciting. Good to see the triple crown gain the old excitment it use to have. I agree with the above. Affirmed and Aladar is a MUST make movie.

  23. Henry Rosen says:


    I stumbled on this post when I was re-living yesterday’s great Preakness race. I’ll Have Another’s run with Bodemeister reminded me so much of Affirmed vs. Aydar in 1978.

    I am 56 – so I remember 1978 well. My biggest memory is hearing the track announcer say over & over: “It’s Affirmed & Alydar . . . Affirmed and Alydar . . . Affirmed and Alydar . . . ” It was absolutely one of the most fantastic races ever – and made even more so by the fact of the rivalry between those two great horses.

    I must say, though, that I’ll Have Another’s win yesterday has to rank right up there with my top racing memories. There is probably nothing that will ever match Secretariat’s dominance at the Belmont in 1973, but that stretch run yesterday was something!

    Thanks for your post. It provided some great background about Affirmed & Alydar. I hope your horse has brought you memories as well.

  24. Dale Pescitelli says:

    I was there!! Just found my old pictures. Have a nice one of Cauthen walking Affirmed through the paddock area. AND one of them down the stretch side by side. too bad it was one of those old insta-matics. nevertheless I will have those photos forever.

  25. Amaya says:

    I am a fairly young horse racing fan, having been born exactly 20 years after Ruffian came in to this world, but it is a sport I am passionate about, in spite of the fact my own equestrian discipline is jumping. I get so excited babbling on about individuals and pedigrees, and I’ve done a lot of researching and watching videos of historical thoroughbreds. As far as Triple Crown winners go, I have a penchant for Seattle Slew, can’t quite explain it, but maybe it is to do with the fact many pedigreed thoroughbreds where I come from, have Seattle Slew in their 3rd sometimes 2nd generations. They make very fine english riding horses.

    Affirmed and Alydar to me were probably one of the greatest rivalries without a doubt, and in light of the recent capturing of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness by I’ll Have Another, who battled out Bodemeister to win by a length in the Derby and a nose in the Preakness. That rivalry could have been the stuff of legends but Bode is bowing out and not running the Belmont. Either way, watching those races made me want to go and rewatch Affirmed and Alydar’s great rivalry, which is why I landed here today.

  26. Marilyn says:

    Affirmed and Alydar. their races were epic.
    My father loved horses and Alydar,I was an Affirmed fan.
    We lived in Bklny and had been to Aqueduct and Belmont many times. My father passed away at age 60 the next yr.I ‘ve rooted for several recent almost triple crown winners,but in a way
    I ‘m glad my Dad was still here the last time it happened.

  27. Janet says:

    I watched them all and lived my life through horses. Alydar was by far the best horse. He may not have proved this on the track, but he proved it in his legacy. Although, I loved Alydar so very much and he remains close to my heart, Secretariat will always dominant as the real Horse of a lifetime. None could come even close to holding a candle to this magnificent animal. He could do it all. On the dirt or turf he reigned supreme. He also gave a sense of hope to a country that needed a champion during that time. He remains the essence of perfection and I highly doubt that any horse will ever come close to his complete domination in the Belmont. He could have kept flying on that track for who knows how long. Never have I seen a performance like that or even close to it.
    Another memorable rivalry was Sudden Silence and Easy Goer. Who could ever imagine that a horse with so much tragedy in his life could ever capture the first two legs of the triple crown? He sure was a beauty to watch.

  28. Barb Guckert says:

    I saw these two race. Those stretch duels were some of the most exciting racing I’ve ever seem. I’ve been watching racing since 1960 and these two, the earlier rivalry of Damascus and Dr. Fager and the later duels of Sunday Silence and Alydars son, Easy Goer, were the most thrilling races I’ve been privilidges to watch.
    I believe a new rivalry is starting between Mucho Macho Man and
    Will Take Charge. If the finish of the ’13 BCC was any test, this years racing should be explosive. ‘

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