06/08/2007 12:00AM

Affirmed set the bar high


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Belmont Stakes will be run Saturday, but there will be no Triple Crown winner this year. Tough luck. Neither will there be a man going to the moon, a pitcher winning 30 games, or a duck singing Puccini. We'll survive.

Racing fans, at least the ones with a sense of history, will survive this 29th consecutive year without a Triple Crown because they remember the last horse to win the Triple Crown, and they are comforted. When another Affirmed comes along, there will be another Triple Crown winner. Simple as that.

Affirmed was a gentleman athlete, fastidious to a fault. There was no spiking the ball, no running up the score. Had he been human, his game might have been fencing, with an occasional break for speed chess. He made everything look easy, even while winning two of his Triple Crown races in photo finishes. Affirmed set the bar just high enough so that very good horses can come close and even some arguably great horses can get a leg over the top. Still, for 29 years, the bar has held firm.

To fully appreciate what Affirmed accomplished, it is necessary to shift the focus every once in a while away from his 3-year-old campaign and bask in the seasons that bracketed his Triple Crown, especially his full-bodied 2-year-old campaign.

May 24, 2007, marked the 30th anniversary of Affirmed's competitive debut for Lou and Patrice Wolfson. He won a 10-horse maiden race at Belmont Park by 4 1/2 lengths, slipping through the wickets at odds of 14-1. Yes, the barn cashed.

After that, Laz Barrera plunged Affirmed into stakes competition and he won the Youthful. That was followed by a second-place finish to Alydar in the Great American, after which Barrera sent his colt west to Hollywood Park to run in a division of the Hollywood Juvenile Championship.

"He was such a grand-looking horse, shining and radiant," recalled Bob Benoit, Hollywood Park's director of publicity at the time. "You just hoped he had some going besides those looks, and he did."

Ridden by Laffit Pincay, Affirmed won by seven.

The rest of Affirmed's 1977 season was spent in the East, taking the Sanford and the Hopeful at Saratoga and the Futurity at Belmont. He was second to Alydar in the Champagne. Then, with the title on the line, Affirmed beat his rival in the Laurel Futurity, on Oct. 29. Five months, four tracks, nine starts, seven wins - now that's a 2-year-old champion.

A representation of Affirmed's entire career is on glorious display these days at the Kentucky Horse Park, near Lexington. The grand unveiling was Wednesday, and Patrice Wolfson would have been there if the weather in Miami had cooperated. But it didn't, so she headed directly home to New York, concerned for the comfort of her husband.

Lou Wolfson, master of the Harbor View Farm operation which raced not only Affirmed but also such champions as Roman Brother, It's in the Air, and Flawlessly, was an outspoken advocate for industry reform and moderation throughout his life as an active breeder and owner. Now 95, Wolfson has been dealing with Alzheimer's disease for several years, keeping him from enjoying the game he loved. There are times, though, according to Patrice, when the old Lou shines through.

"He'll hear me talking about someone, or I'll put a tape on, and there will be a look of recognition in his eyes," Patrice said. "So he's very aware, but he doesn't say much anymore, although every once in awhile he'll come out with something."

The Wolfsons are very much a part of the Affirmed exhibit at the Kentucky Horse Park. Not only did they provide all of Affirmed's major trophies on loan - including the three-cornered Triple Crown trophy crafted by Tiffany's - there is an array of paintings and photographs as well, lending a warm contrast to all the impressive hardware.

"We found eight to 10 different pictures of him nuzzling me," Patrice Wolfson said. "One of them was the day he was going off to stud. Laz couldn't believe it. CBS was there filming him at the track, and there he is with his head in my arms. Lou was amazed. He'd just stand back and watch. But there was some little something that I shared with Affirmed. He was like my little puppy dog."

With the Wolfsons unable to attend, the Affirmed family was represented at the exhibit opening by Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed to his Triple Crown victories along with seven other stakes wins, and Steven Wolfson, Lou's son.

"One of the best things in the exhibit is the audio displays," Steve Wolfson said. "They have Patrice, and Steve Cauthen, and Laffit, of course. But they also have Laz, and they have my father - two voices that have been silenced by death, in Laz's case, or by illness. That was very moving.

"What was just as moving," he added, "were the people who would come up and ask me questions about Affirmed, and tell me that they didn't have any interest in racing at all, until Affirmed came along. It made realize again what a horse like that can do."