04/01/2008 12:00AM

Before Crown run, Affirmed ruled the West

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The last 29 winners of the Santa Anita Derby have been a mixed bunch, top-heavy with horses still fresh in mind. Sunday Silence, A.P. Indy, and Point Given each went on to become a Horse of the Year. Winning Colors continued in top form to take the Kentucky Derby. Snow Chief and Codex both won the Preakness, while Skywalker came back at 4 to win a Breeders' Cup Classic.

The list goes on to include Flying Paster, Came Home, General Challenge, Free House, Castledale, Buzzards Bay, and Tiago, all of them winners of major events as they aged. Sorry to say, there also were seven Santa Anita Derby winners during that period who came to the end of their careers without winning another race. At least they had that day.

Go back 30 years, however, and recent history tends to pale. Affirmed won the Santa Anita Derby in 1978, then went on to sweep the Triple Crown, win consecutive titles as Horse of the Year, and retire as the all-time leading money winner. Other than that, he wasn't much.

Affirmed did not simply win the Santa Anita Derby. He stuck a knife in the hearts of every other California 3-year-old nurturing the least little spark of Kentucky Derby hope that winter. By the time the generation assembled at Churchill Downs for the big dance, California was thinly represented by Arkansas Derby winner Esops Foibles, who had fled Santa Anita early, and Hoist the Silver, who did his racing in Northern California, at a safe distance from Affirmed.

Good thing, too, because at Santa Anita on April 2, 1978, the red colt was on fire. The winter had been kind to him, despite heavy, steady rains, and when he stepped onto the track that Sunday afternoon, he was the 3-10 choice of 48,066 fans, duly impressed with his career record of 9 wins from 11 starts, which included a two-length score in the San Felipe Stakes two weeks earlier.

The presence of Affirmed was not only exciting, it was semi-historic. It had been 18 years since a reigning 2-year-old champion had spent the winter in the West at Santa Anita, prepping for the spring classics. Warfare was a California-bred son of Determine who blossomed in the East during 1959 to win the Cowdin, the Champagne and the Garden State Stakes and earn his title. He came back home with trainer Hack Ross, but his Kentucky Derby prospects floundered. Warfare ran just twice as a 3-year-old, finishing second in a Jan. 6 Santa Anita allowance race and then winning the Swift Stakes at Aqueduct in late March.

In order to win the 1978 Santa Anita Derby, Affirmed needed a jockey. Steve Cauthen had been aboard Affirmed for seven straight races, since the 1977 Saratoga meet, and had won six of those, including an allowance race and the San Felipe at Santa Anita. Cauthen won the San Felipe while under a court stay of a suspension, but when his appeal was denied, just days before the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Lazaro Barrera had to find a replacement.

"I thought I had the call," said Tony Matos, who was agent for Angel Cordero at the time. "Maybe I misunderstood Lazaro, but I don't think so."

The memory still gets Matos a little warm, but time has cauterized the wound. Both Cordero and Laffit Pincay had won stakes aboard Affirmed early in his 2-year-old season, and it was Pincay, as far as owner Louis Wolfson was concerned, who would step in for Cauthen.

Caught in a bind, Barrera ended up tossing a coin to settle the matter. Agent George O'Bryan represented his man Pincay. Someone asked Matos to call the toss.

"I didn't want to call no toss," said Matos, who currently represents Victor Espinoza and Aaron Gryder. "I was mad, and I lost my temper. Me and Laz didn't speak for a long time."

Guess who won the toss.

With Pincay aboard, Affirmed showed his usual speed and was in complete control by the time the local derby field reached the backstretch. He extended his advantage from there, drawing off to win by eight lengths.

"He really exploded that day," recalled Patrice Wolfson, from her home in Florida. "And you know, I think the rain really helped him that winter. When it got too bad, Laz would just fool around with him a little, galloping and working when he could. With the lighter training, he was able to fill out a little more. And with the Triple Crown ahead, he needed it."

The two colts finishing behind Affirmed in the Santa Anita Derby were promising in their own right. But they paid the price, chasing the champ.

Second-place Balzac, trained by Charlie Whittingham, closed from last to finish second like a horse who would go on. But he fractured a knee in the process. Third-place Think Snow, trained by Ron McAnally, returned to finished second to Affirmed and Cauthen in the Hollywood Derby, run two weeks later, and was beaten only two lengths. Think Snow also bowed a tendon.

As for Cordero, he ended up aboard the 58-1 longshot Go Forth in the Santa Anita Derby and finished eighth. Matos stewed for about 5 1/2 months, then watched Cordero and Seattle Slew defeat Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park.

"I was young, I was crazy," Matos said with a laugh. "And I got over it."