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Greatness Affirmed! Cauthen outduels Velasquez, Alydar

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Affirmed on the inside, Steve Cauthen up, wins the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, ahead of Alydar, with Jorge Velasquez up, on June 10, 1978.

(Originally published by the Daily News on Sunday, June 11, 1978; written by Russ Harris)

Never, but never, has there been another thoroughbred rivalry to compare with it.

Affirmed, tested as no previous Triple Crown winner has been, came on again after being passed in the stretch yesterday to outfinish Alydar by a head in the $ 184,300 Belmont Stakes. It was the closest finish ever for a Triple Crown winner as Affirmed responded to jockey Steve Cauthen’s urging to earn American racing’s most coveted prize.

The two gallant 3-year-olds finished 13 3/4 lengths ahead of Darby Creek Road, the third choice at 901 in the 110th running of the Belmont. Judge Advocate took fourth money, another 7 3/4 lengths farther back and Noon Time Spender finished last, another 1 1/4 lengths behind.

Affirmed’s triumph, his eighth in a row and his seventh in nine meetings with Alydar, was accomplished in 2:26 4/5, the third fastest running of the mile-and-one-half classic.

Secretariat, who was clocked in 2:24 while winning by 31 lengths in 1973, holds the track and American record. The only other Belmont faster than Affirmed’s was Gallant Man’s 2:26 3/5 in 1957.

Heavily favored by a crowd of 65,417, Affirmed returned $ 3.20 and $ 2.10. Alydar, ridden by Jorge Velasquez, was second choice at even money and returned $ 2.20 to place. No show betting was offered because fo the prospect for heavy wagering on the two standout colts which would certainly have resulted in a minus pool.

Affirmed, now has won 14 of 16 starts, finishing second on the other two occasions when he lost last season to Alydar, the only horse ever to defeat him. The Belmont purse of $ 110,580 increased Affirmed’s earnings to $ 1,133,807. the Florida-bred son of Exclusive Native-Won’t Tell You, by Crafty Admiral, bred in Ocala by owner Louis E. Wolfson, became the sport’s youngest millionaire three weeks ago when he held off Alydar by a neck in the Preakness Stakes.

Affirmed became the 11th to sweep the Triple Crown, the third in the last six years, and his accomplishment followed Seattle Slew’s sweep of the classics last season marked the first time racing has had back-to-back Triple Crown winners.

Cauthen, who became 18 years old May 1, reportedly was to become the youngest jockey ever to win the Triple Crown. However, a check of the American Racing Manual indicated that William (Smokey) Saunders was only 17 when he rode Omaha to his sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1935.

Yesterday’s Belmont, Chapter 9 in the Affirmed-Alydar drama, incredibly was the most dramatic yet.

Aware that Cauthen was setting a snail’s pace with Affirmed in the first quarter-mile, Velasquez moved early with Alydar.

Affirmed was in front under a strong hold for the initial quarter in :25 with Judge Advocate 30-1 under Jeffrey Fell second and Alydar third.

Around the first turn, Velasquez moved the Calumet colt up to second and he was a length behind Affirmed as the Harbor View Farm 3-year-old completed the first half-mile in :50, “trotting horse time” in racetrack vernacular.

There was no way Alydar could win unless he moved immediately to challenge Affirmed, so Velasquez brought his mount up to be lapped on Cauthen’s mount at the head of the backstretch. The two 3-year-olds now went head and head for the remaining 6 1/2 furlongs of the “test of champions.”

Cauthen, racing near the rail, kept Affirmed in front, leading by a half-length in 1:14 for six furlongs and by a head after a mile and one-quarter in 2:01 3/5. Velasquez’s strategy was to wear down Affirmed, and trainer John Veitch had said two days ago that Alydar was the bigger, stronger horse. But Affirmed proved to be not only “the better athlete,” as former jockey Eddie Arcaro had called him, but also the most durable.

The two horses entered the long Belmont stretch, approximately a quarter of a mile, head and head, close together, so close that Cauthen could barely use his whip with his right hand. About three-sixteenths of a mile from the wire, Velasquez, whipping right-handed, was able to gain a very narrow lead with Alydar. But passing Affirmed and staying in front of him are two different things.

Cauthen hit his mount once with the right hand, then switched whip hands and cracked him from the left side. Affirmed, as he always does, responded to regain a narrow lead and the two chestnut colts matched stride for stride to the wide with Alydar once again unable to stay with his foe.

Ruben Hernandez, who rode Noon Time Spender, said afterward: “I noticed leaving the the five-eights pole that the crowd really started to scream when the two horses got together. It’s the loudest I’ve ever heard. I figured Steve had won because I saw him stand up and wave.” Cauthen waved his stick just past the wire despite the narrow margin of victory, knowing that the redoubtable Affirmed once more had proved equal to his task.

“We were going nice and slow early,” said Cauthen. “Alydar was running with me but it was a slow pace. I took him slow with me down the backstretch, just kept in front without pressing him. He came to me on the turn and we let out a bit. Going into the stretch, Jorge was riding right alongside of me and I had to switch whips, but after Alydar got the lead, Affirmed came back again.”

“I believe maybe at the three-sixteenths pole we got a head in front,” Velasquez said. “They (Affirmed and Alydar) proved they are the greatest. You see how far they beat the rest every time they run. Today was kind of difficult for my horse, because Steve was trying to slow down the pace and I had to go and chase him. I’d rather see someone else chase him and come up at the end and surprise him.”

The 32-year-old Veitch, who had never stopped believing in Alydar, once again had to suffer an agonizing defeat.

“What can I say?” the Calumet trainer asked. “It was a helluva horse race and we got beat. Sure, I’m disappointed. But I’m proud of my horse. He has stayed strong throughout a tough – the toughest grind. He still looks strong, and we’ll be back to try Affirmed again. And we’ll get him sometime, somewhere. Maybe the Travers at Saratoga (in August).

“Alydar will get a rest, no racing until Saratoga,” Veitch continued. “His next major race will be the Travers. The pace? I thought the first half-mile was a little slow, but what the heck, Alydar and Affirmed went three-quarters of a mile head and head. Jorge rode a great race – but then, so did Cauthen.”

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