Affirmed and Alydar.
Alydar and Affirmed.
Two magnificent running machines, yoked together forever, and thrust back in the spotlight now because, yet again, we are teased by the possibility of one of the great achievements in sport, the winning of the elusive Triple Crown, which was last accomplished in 1978.
In each of the three Triple Crown races in '78, Affirmed was all out against the resolute Alydar, winning first by a length and a half in the Kentucky Derby, then by a straining neck in the Preakness, and finally by a sweaty head in the Belmont.
Theirs was a rivalry worth reliving today on tape while we await, with increasing impatience, history. Affirmed was first to the wire eight times in their duels, but (not counting Alydar's first start as a 2-year-old) only by a total of five lengths. And there are those who argued that because he was on the outside, away from the rail, Alydar actually ran longer, greater distances.
It has also been suggested that the Affirmed-Alydar tandem ran the most challenging Triple Crown campaign in history because they had to race against each other and not the clock. It makes for an interesting theory, but every time I hear any sort of argument involving horse racing there is a flashing red light in my brain and one name blinks in insistent neon:
A brief history lesson:
June 10, 1978. The Belmont. A mile and a half, topped off by that cruel and punishing home stretch, the graveyard of champions, where Triple Crown hopefuls go to leave their bleached bones. You don't win it as much as you survive it.
The two begin to separate from the field almost immediately, drawing off until it looks as if there are two different races being contested. After a mile they have dug in and are locked in a syncopated rhythm, and so close a man could just stand between them. From there on, the last insane half-mile, they are head to head. To this day, Alydar, that valiant warrior, remains the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races.
It was the third time in six years that there was a Triple Crown champion. We began to think it was commonplace, and took it for granted. In the interim, 11 have gone postward needing one more triumph for the Triple, and none has come back a winner.
The one that resonates here ran in 2004. Smarty Jones. Remember? Such a gritty little tiger, a scrapper made for Philadelphia. He sloshed his way over a soupy track into the winners circle at the Kentucky Derby and then won the Preakness by a record-shattering 111/2 lengths ("And I still had a lot of horse left," said Stewart Elliott, Smarty's chauffeur.)
At the Belmont, they ganged up on him like a wolf pack stalking, denying him a moment's respite. But he went to the front and stayed there anyway, unyielding, until that endless homestretch.
Stride by stride, they closed. Stride by diminishing stride his lead evaporated. And as it became apparent that he would be caught, that there would be no Triple Crown this day, up in the press box, where writers are expected to sit in stoic silence, all emotions held in check, the chorus of anguish began:
"No. . . . Oh, no. . . . N-o-o-o-o."
Fifty yards from the finish the late-running Birdstone, a 36-1 long shot, surged by him. It was the only time in Smarty's career that another horse passed him.
And then a remarkable thing happened. First the owner, then the trainer, and finally the jockey of Birdstone by turns felt the need to apologize publicly for the upset. It was an extraordinary moment in a sport that needs all the extraordinary moments it can get.
Also remarkable were the careers of those two gallant warriors, Affirmed and Alydar. Alydar raced 26 times, Affirmed 29 - such impressive longevity.
There is a dark shadow on this Belmont, the loathsome demon that is the bane of thoroughbred racing - pharmaceuticals. The barn of I'll Have Another, winner of the first two legs, is under investigation for extended doping. The only saving grace is that I'll Have Another is not involved, and Belmont officials are taking intensive measures to keep him, and the other horses, clean.
The I'll Have Another camp contends that its colt thrives on distance - that the longer the race, the better he goes. With its wide, sweeping turns, the Belmont should offer favorable circumstances. But if not I'll Have Another, then who? Perhaps the colt from Chadds Ford, Union Rags, big and rangy, late running, and capable of overpowering those daunting turns, and presumably fresh, having skipped the Preakness.
If you are drawn to the grace and power of these four-legged athletes, so majestic, so valiant, well . . . the sport is sorely in need of a Triple Crown champion. But then we've been lamenting that for 34 years.