In this June 10, 1978, photo, Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen, right, battle Alydar and jockey Jorge Velasquez down the stretch of the Belmont Stakes. Affirmed won the race and thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
Associated Press file
Thirty years later, Patrice Wolfson still can feel the grandstand at Belmont Park shaking as Affirmed and Alydar battled down the track's yawning stretch.
Affirmed was a half-mile from history in the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, Alydar was a half-mile from redemption. A rivalry largely unmatched in sports was ready for its defining moment.
The stands began swaying as the horses passed the quarter pole, Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen holding on gamely as Alydar pulled even. In the stands, Alydar trainer John Veitch swelled with emotion as his colt appeared to barely edge in front.
"I thought I had him, and at the 16th pole I did," Veitch said.
At the wire he didn't, as Cauthen -- jammed against the rail by Alydar's jockey, Jorge Velasquez -- switched the whip from his right hand to his left. He'd never done it before. He'd never had to.
Yet, as Affirmed always seemed to do when asked for just a little more, he dug in. Affirmed lunged to the lead in the final yards to win by a neck and become the 11th horse in history to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
"It was all tenacity, it was all grit," recalled Wolfson, who co-owned the horse with her husband, Louis. "It was just him wanting to win."
Affirmed's triumph in 1978 made him the third Triple Crown winner in six years and came at the end of horse racing's Golden Era, an age that gave rise to some of the sport's most iconic horses, from Citation to Secretariat to Seattle Slew to Affirmed and Alydar.
Though there have been plenty of stars since, from Alysheba to Barbaro, none has joined racing's most exclusive club.
"I should have pulled it off last year," said Carl Nafzger, trainer of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense. "When I took that lead in the Preakness, I should have won the thing. My horse just slacked off there and Curlin ate us up."
It's a fate that's become all too familiar for Triple Crown hopefuls. Ten horses over the last 29 years have won the Derby and the Preakness only to come up short in the Belmont, where dreams of racing immortality can come crashing down in the unforgiving final stretch of the grueling 1½-mile test.
"It just showed it's a tough thing to do," said Cauthen, who was the toast of the racing world at 18, then retired from riding in the early 1990s and now owns a horse farm in northern Kentucky. "It seems like the Michael Jordans of the world are here by divine whatever, and then they disappear and you don't see them for a while."
The current drought is the longest between Triple Crown winners. For a sport struggling to remain relevant, there's hope one of the 20 horses in Saturday's Kentucky Derby can succeed where the last 29 crops of 3-year-olds have failed.
It won't be easy. Certainly not as easy as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed made it seem in the 1970s. There was talk after Affirmed's victory of adjusting the distances because the feat had become too commonplace. They don't talk about that anymore.
Instead, the discussion has turned to why horses can't seem to deliver, though there have been three agonizingly close calls in the last 11 years. Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones all entered the Belmont with a chance at the crown. All three led late in the race. All three finished second.
In 1997, Silver Charm led deep in the stretch but couldn't hold off Touch Gold and lost by a half-length. A year later, Real Quiet seemed to have things well in hand, leading by 4 lengths midway through the stretch, only to lose by a nose to a charging Victory Gallop.
Smarty Jones' popularity soared in 2004 when he took the Derby and the Preakness and entered the Belmont unbeaten. Yet he tired late after an exhausting early pace and couldn't hold off Birdstone.
"I just think the distance got him," Cauthen said. "At the three-sixteenths pole he still looked like he could win, and he just hit the wall."
It's a wall that requires a nearly perfect set of circumstances -- including a little luck -- to overcome.
In Affirmed's stretch run at the Belmont, Cauthen patted the horse on the shoulder twice with his right hand. It still wasn't enough to shake Alydar. Cauthen was ready to give Affirmed the usual encouragement with the whip, but didn't have room to do it right-handed without hitting Velasquez and Alydar, who were inches to the outside.
Cauthen switched hands for the first time in his career aboard Affirmed. Even he wasn't sure how the colt would respond.
"I didn't feel as confident with my left hand. It was a last resort for me," he Cauthen. "That day I knew we were going to have to find something else."
No other horse in 30 years has been able to react quite as heroically.
Nafzger said it's become so easy for trainers to ship their top horses across the country that the fields are more talented than ever. When Affirmed and Alydar met in the Derby, there were just 11 horses in the race. There will be 20 in the gate at this year's Derby.
"You start throwing all these top horses against each other all the time, I tell you what, it's a whole new ballgame," he said. "I'm not saying Alydar and Affirmed weren't tough, but it's no longer a small world. You never back off, and when you get higher up the ladder, it just gets worse and worse."
Maybe, Veitch argues, today's horses aren't nearly as battle tested as they were 30 years ago.
Affirmed and Alydar met six times as 2-year-olds and faced each other four more times as 3-year-olds. Today, most of the top horses don't race more than 10 times in their career as owners are quick to send them to the lucrative breeding shed. Smarty Jones raced just nine times. Street Sense went to the starting gate 11 times before being retired.
"The process of the breeding and also the advent of extensive use of medication has produced a softer race horse than we saw in the 1940s through the 1970s," Veitch said.
He attributed part of the blame to the centralization of training. With so few trainers getting the majority of the quality horses, there's no impetus for trainers to pit their horses against each other.
"They can choose where they want to run and who they want to run against and make money," Veitch said. "Before even the best horse trainers were limited to no more than 40 horses at the most. A trainer now, he can have three, four, five horses that could participate in almost any of these (stakes) races. If he's got five of them, why run one against the other?"
Big Brown, this year's early Derby favorite, has raced just three times in his career. He's won all three, but how he'll respond to a crowded field of 20 is anybody's guess.
"He may go 20 races and be undefeated," Cauthen said. "But in general, over the last 15-20 years it seems horses aren't quite as tough or race as much as Affirmed or Alydar. They never missed a dance. They never missed a chance to take each other on."
Which is what makes the spring of 1978 still resonate. The last 30 years have proved how rare it is for a great horse to come along, let alone two. Affirmed trainer Laz Barrera, who died in 1991, called his colt the greatest Triple Crown winner of them all because of his rivalry with Alydar.
The two ended up meeting 10 times in their careers. Affirmed won the head-to-head 7-3, but their epic battles have made their legacy intertwined.
"When Affirmed gets the glory he justly deserved, some of the radiation of that glory falls on Alydar," Veitch said. "There wasn't a time when those two got together that they didn't deliver."
Theirs was a rivalry of manners. Cauthen and Velasquez have remained good friends through the years, and Veitch went on to train a horse owned by Steve Wolfson, Louis' son.
"It was really just about the horses," Steve Wolfson said. "It really could have been different if Mr. Veitch was a different type man. But he was such a gentleman and showed so much respect for my father. It was just a very special thing."
Something that the industry hopes it can recapture. Veitch doesn't expect the drought to last forever.
"There is going to come around a horse of exceptional talent, either that or a very good horse that might face a weaker generation," he said. "We've had some dry spells in the past where we've not had a Triple Crown winner. But I'm fully confident we'll have one again some day. I can't say when, but it'll happen."
Maybe this June the grandstand at Belmont will sway once more as greatness is attained. Yet as each year goes by without a winner, it only makes the mark Affirmed and Alydar left on the sport more indelible.
"They were set apart," Patrice Wolfson said. "That doesn't mean you're not going to get one. It just shows it's such a difficult task and how hard it is to make history."