06/02/2004 11:00PM

Crowning Moments: The last Time

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"People will tell you about the great races between Citation and Noor out in California in the early 1950's, and the race between Ridan and Jaipur in the Travers at Saratoga in 1962. Great races. But Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont? Probably the best horse race that's ever been run. I'll look at it again and again anytime I'm fortunate enough to get the chance. I'll raise a glass to 'em while I'm watchin' the replays and, damn, I'll root - come on Affirmed, come on Alydar. Come on Cauthen, come on Velasquez. Whatever it is that these two horses have can't be bought or manufactured. It's the greatest act horse racing has ever had. I hope it never ends."

That was the way William Leggett began his report on the 1978 Belmont Stakes in his cover story for Sports Illustrated. He was quoting Woody Stephens, who was among the more than 65,000 people in attendance at Belmont Park on June 10, 1978, when Affirmed met Alydar for the ninth time, this time with the Triple Crown on the line. Woody got it right.

Those who were lucky enough to be in the crowd that day will never forget the experience. The race has taken on mythic proportions, one of those identifying cultural landmarks that make time and place indelible. Where were you when Affirmed and Alydar went at each other in the Belmont? Every racing fan alive in 1978 knows the answer.

A quarter of a century later, the surviving players in the 1978 Triple Crown drama were asked to relive that singular occasion. And while the game has lost both Affirmed and Alydar, as well as Lazaro Barrera, trainer of Affirmed, and Alydar's owners, Gene and Lucille Markey, there were still plenty of the major players willing to share their Belmont Stakes memories.

Jockey Jorge Velasquez and trainer John Veitch needed no encouragement to speak eloquently of Alydar's fearless determination. Likewise Steve Cauthen and Patrice Wolfson when it came to Affirmed. Cauthen rode him, and Wolfson bred and raced the Triple Crown winner alongside her husband, Lou.

Their voices were joined by Barrera's widow, Carmen, and her son, Larry, who traveled with Affirmed throughout the Triple Crown as his father's assistant. It was 18-year-old Larry Barrera who gave 18-year-old Steve Cauthen a leg up in the paddock at Belmont Park on that June day in 1978, setting history in motion.

Larry Barrera "No one expected it to be a Triple Crown year. It was such a close rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar, you'd figure that Alydar would pull one of the three races away from Affirmed. But Affirmed was perfection. Affirmed never missed a meal. Affirmed never took a funny step. The only real mishap Affirmed ever had in his career was the day he dropped the rider and got loose at Santa Anita. Ninety percent of horses, when they get loose, run back to their own barn. Affirmed ran to Charlie Whittingham's barn and stopped right in front of that horse Balzac - the one he beat in the Santa Anita Derby."

Carmen Barrera "I tell you, it wasn't easy. Laz would wake up in the middle of the night, all the time, and pick up the phone. 'Is Affirmed all right?' he would ask the man at the barn. 'He is laying down? Good. Leave him alone.' I would tell Laz that he needed to lay down himself and go to sleep."

Jorge Velasquez "I called Alydar the Champ. I loved that horse. Whenever we'd work at Belmont, I'd carry some sugar with me. We'd work, and stop by the gap. He'd throw his head up in the air and open his mouth. I'd put the sugar in his mouth and we'd walk back to the barn."

Patrice Wolfson "In that Belmont, I couldn't get away from feeling that you just don't get another chance. There will always be another Breeders' Cup race, or another chance at a Gold Cup. But you only have that one moment in time when you can win a Triple Crown. And we were up against such a tremendous horse. Still, it was hard to think that Alydar would ever go past Affirmed. It was as if Affirmed always somehow managed to find a way to get the job done. And then there was that very special relationship Steve and Affirmed had."

Steve Cauthen "Because Affirmed was such an intelligent horse, he was relaxed, taking everything in, and it was always a pleasure to warm him up, unlike some horses where you're worried if they're going to start freaking out and be silly.

"He limbered up fine that day. It was the same pony and same pony boy with us, going through the motions. We talked a little, things like, 'Well, you think it's going to happen?' I was trying to make it feel like just another race. Everybody around him was competent. The horse was in good shape. Let's just let him speak for himself."

John Veitch "I decided to take Alydar's blinkers off for the Belmont, and to attack Affirmed much earlier in the race than we'd ever done before, with the intention of making him run that last mile every step of the way, and see who was the stronger. I thought I had the stronger horse.

"I knew Affirmed had a little bit of an advantage, being able to dictate the terms of any race he was in because of his style of running. That made Alydar's job that much tougher. My only overriding worry was that I had programmed Alydar into a one-dimensional, one-run, finishing-kick kind of horse. If I used that one run early in the race, he might come up empty. So I was holding my breath that I had done the right thing."

Velasquez "Before the Belmont Stakes, it was like any other race. Alydar was feeling good, acting normal. We never used a pony with him. I always galloped him by myself. He was strong and he was ready.

"He didn't show me any difference about the blinkers. But I knew the first quarter was slow. The second quarter I had to pick it up, because Affirmed was just galloping. We couldn't just let him look around."

Cauthen "I was happy to be in post 3 and have Alydar on my inside. I knew I could break better than him, and could maybe ease over. Jorge would have to either rush his horse up, which I knew he wouldn't want to do, or pull back and work around. I was able to slow the pace down, pretty much to a crawl, which we did for the first half-mile.

"We got to the backside, and everything was fine. Then I heard the roar of the crowd. I knew it was Alydar. He'd moved up. Basically, I looked over at Jorge and said, 'If you want to go, buddy, kick on. You're not going to push me and make me go to work now.' "

Velasquez "With a mile to go we hooked them, and from there they increased the pace every furlong, faster and faster. Alydar never felt tired to me. Such a courageous horse. He would always keep trying."

Veitch "Thinking in hindsight - as I have ever since that race - I probably should have given Jorge Velasquez instructions to go at him right out of the starting gate, and not wait. But I figured we'd end up on the outside around that first turn if we did. I knew we'd probably be on the outside of the final turn, and I didn't want to give away that ground on both turns. At Belmont, that can amount to a lot of ground."

Cauthen "Basically we cat-and-moused down the backside. I was concentrating on my own horse, and what I wanted to do. But I was certainly aware of how Alydar was going, and he was travelling fine.We got the three-quarters in 1:14, which is not very fast for horses of that caliber. Then when we got to the half-mile pole it was like, let's see what they've got."

Wolfson "I could see them fine - of course, they were together from the backstretch all the way around. I couldn't use my binoculars, because my hands were shaking, and my knees were shaking, and then, as they came into the stretch together, the stands started shaking. There they were, right in front of us. The noise was incredible."

Carmen Barrera "Laz's doctors told him to try not to be so emotional. But when Affirmed ran, oh, I could hardly watch. Laz would hold his binoculars tighter, tighter. That day in the Belmont, Affirmed and Alydar, they went back and forth like this" - she moved her hands like horses bobbing their heads - "until I thought he would have a heart attack right there."

Cauthen "I felt some fatigue in Affirmed, but I knew he wasn't going to give up. I also knew it would be the toughest of the three by far, unlike the Preakness, where I always felt confident in holding off Alydar. This time the thought ran through my mind - it's all or nothing today. I knew we'd have to dig deep. At that point in the race I knew we'd have to dig real deep. It was like a deep-down sense of weariness, like he was saying he could feel the weight on his shoulders, and he still had the length of the stretch, and here's this horse again, running down my throat."

Velasquez "I put a head in front, yes, at about the three-sixteenths pole. I thought, 'I got him this time.' What I did was ride Steve close so he wouldn't be able to hit right-handed. It was just race-riding, close to him but making sure I didn't bother him. I wanted to make him switch his stick. You never know, sometimes when you're switching sticks you drop the whip - then you've got a problem.

"But Steve didn't drop the whip. He changed to the left hand like the good professional he was, even though he was a kid. It was the first time he ever hit that horse left-handed."

Cauthen "I thought about hitting him left-handed many times before, but never got to the point where I felt like I had to do it. At the top of the stretch, just past the quarter pole, the thought ran through my mind that today we needed it all, and that I might have to do what I'd been thinking about doing. So I did it, just like that, and he responded."

Larry Barrera "Steve had the aura of confidence around him - that 'Michael Jordan from 15 feet' confidence. You knew, this kid's not going to blow it. The only doubt in the whole Triple Crown was that moment in the Belmont Stakes when Velasquez came to the outside of Steve, and in that one moment Steve needed to switch sticks from his right to his left. And without the horse even losing a stride, he did it perfectly. It was the greatest whip change I'd ever seen performed. And he did it. It was like a musician hitting that note that needs to be hit. He hit it, and it was perfect."

Veitch "I thought we had him. But then Affirmed came back on, and still they were bobbing heads to the wire. They were both great competitors. One enhanced the other's ability. You had two very closely matched, consistent horses like that who never gave an inch.

"I thought the Belmont would be the race where Alydar's superior strength would prevail. It was certainly disappointing, but at the same time it was gratifying that Alydar, though beaten, never disgraced himself. Maybe if we'd gone another sixteenth of a mile, it would have worked. It almost did."

Wolfson "I always had the feeling that Affirmed would never let you down. Somehow you just knew. When it was over, Lou and I fell into each other's arms. I remember turning around and kissing Laz."

Cauthen "For a jockey, the feelings don't get any better than that kind of race. With all the pressure, and all the world looking at you, and knowing that if it goes wrong, it's going to be you that would be blamed. Basically, you had to ride a flawless race. And Jorgie did, too. Chic Anderson's call summed it up - that's what happens when you get two great horses and two great riders in a situation like that. It's magic."

Larry Barrera "I asked Steve that night, the night of the Belmont Stakes, 'Can you tell me, did you have any concern?' He said, 'Let me tell you something, Larry. Horses seem to, in a race, when they've had it, they let out one last gasp of air. It's like the tank going empty on your car. That one, last "oomph." When I hit the quarter pole, the horse let out everything he had. What carried me home to the wire was his heart.' "

Velasquez "The first thing I did after the race was congratulate Steve. Then I patted my horse on the neck, and when I pulled up, I told him, 'Champ, you gave it a good try. You're still my champ.'

"Some people ask me, 'Do you feel frustrated because he kept beating you?' My answer is yes, and no. I was happy to be part of such a rivalry. Those two horses made history. They made the game better. And I was proud to be a part of it."

Cauthen "There were a lot of emotions, but one of the biggest was relief. It was like, 'Whew. Thank God.' All along I had total respect for Alydar. Obviously for good reason. He never gave up either. It was a wonderful feeling, and very hard to explain how many different feelings go through you at a time like that. I was very proud of the horse, and myself, too, for holding up to the pressure."

Larry Barrera "When Affirmed and Steve came into the winner's circle, and they threw the carnations on his shoulders, Affirmed went down to his knees. They buckled, he was that tired. Laz saw it and said, 'Enough. No more pictures.' His warrior had done enough. He had done the job."