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?