06/01/2012 4:37PM

Hovdey: Triple Crown history laid to rest

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Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club
From left, assistant trainer Larry Barrera and his father, trainer Lazaro Barrera, lead Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen at the 1978 Preakness Stakes.

In April 1991, in a cemetary not far from Santa Anita, the mortal remains of Lazaro Sosa Barrera were boxed in a casket and lowered to the bottom of deep grave flanked by a tall pine and a flowering magnolia. A concrete slab was placed on a rim of dirt a few inches above the casket to protect it from the earth shoveled from above. A brass plaque affixed to a rough-cut granite boulder was placed at the head of the grave. The only information included on the plaque was Barrera’s name and dates of birth and death, along with the name of his wife, Carmen, who would join him there someday.

That day came last Thursday afternoon when Carmen Barrera, the woman everyone called Chacha, was laid to rest at the age of 87. The Barreras were married for just shy of 42 years, and with her passing went another living reminder of the Triple Crown being celebrated at this particular moment as Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another attempts to become the first to sweep the series of springtime classics since Affirmed turned the trick in 1978.

Affirmed was bred and owned by Louis and Patrice Wolfson, ridden for the most part by Steve Cauthen and Laffit Pincay, and trained throughout his career by Lazaro Barrera. Larry Barrera, his father’s namesake and assistant, traveled with Affirmed throughout the Triple Crown quest, the same Larry Barrera, now 51, who sat quietly as his mother was laid to rest Thursday.

“She was doing okay, even with the Alzheimer’s, until about eight months ago when the brain no longer told the legs how to walk,” Larry said. “That broke her heart, because she loved to walk. She walked fast, faster than me, and she had a lot of energy. I would take her to Moonlight Beach and get worried she might forget where we parked the car. But she never did.”

[I’LL HAVE ANOTHER: Derby, Preakness winner runs for Triple Crown]

Barrera is a recovering drug addict who squandered a chance to follow in his father’s footsteps with a satisfying training career. He now works for a San Diego County transportation firm, solid enough employment but a far cry from the hot lights of Belmont Park 34 years ago, when he was at Affirmed’s side with the whole sports world watching.

“Affirmed was so cool, but my dad was so tense all the time,” Larry said. “All we had to do was look at the horse to know it would be okay.”

It is understandable Larry Barrera would have mixed feelings about I’ll Have Another’s swing at the crown.

“Part of me hopes he wins the Belmont,” he said, “and part of me hopes he doesn’t. I like the idea that no horse has been able to do it since Affirmed, because there really hasn’t been a horse come around that’s like Affirmed. And I doubt if there ever will.”

He’s got a point. There have been some wonderful, sometimes brilliant colts perform for our pleasure over the three decades since Affirmed’s last race, in October 1979, when as a 4-year-old he defeated Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid and Belmont winner Coastal in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. But there has been no Thoroughbred approach the record Affirmed had etched in stone by the time he left the stage: champion at 2, 3, and 4. Horse of the Year at 3 and 4. Triple Crown winner. All-time leading money-winner.

Affirmed made his people famous, just as I’ll Have Another is bringing the spotlight to his connections for at least this brief window of time. Affirmed, though, was a long-haul horse who did so much more than simply win three races in a five-week span in the spring of his 3-year-old season.

Still, it’s the Triple Crown that sticks a pin in history’s map forever. And it is the toll a Triple Crown takes – on both horse and humans – that places the achievement in the realm of the heroic. In an interview a few years ago, Carmen Barrera shared what her husband went through during that spring of ’78.

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

“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,” she recalled. “ ‘Is he laying down? Good. Leave him alone.’ I would tell him that he needed to lay down himself and go to sleep.

“His doctors told him he had to try and relax more,” she went on. “Try not to be so emotional. But when Affirmed ran, oh, I could hardly watch. In the Belmont, Affirmed and Alydar went back and forth until I thought he would have a heart attack right there.”

Instead, Barrera had open heart surgery a year later, in the midst of a 4-year-old season that would stamp Affirmed forever as one of the all-time greats.

For the last 20 years, Carmen Barrera made her full-time home a hundred miles to the south, at the La Costa condo she and Lazaro had shared during summers and special holidays. She bowled with the girls and volunteered at a local hospital, and welcomed anyone into her home to admire the trophies and art acquired during the heyday of the Barrera stable.

That she was no longer part of the L.A. area racing scene helped explain the small turnout for Carmen’s farewell, on a hot weekday afternoon in the San Gabriel Valley. But it also underlined how the wives of famous men tend to recede into the shadows of history once their man is gone.

At the back of the gathering, his profile unmistakable to anyone who ever watched Affirmed perform, Laffit Pincay stood quietly through the brief service, then reflected on the place the Barreras had in his life.

“Laz was a very good friend, and Chacha loved him very much,” Pincay said.

“Even if this horse wins the Triple Crown, people will never forget about a great horse like Affirmed,” Pincay added. “I hope they don’t forget about Laz and Chacha either.”

Blanca Uriza More than 1 year ago
Jay Hovdey,DRF-I want to thank you for the beautiful tribute to my parents. After so many years, my dad's achievements are still recognized, and now my mother rests by his side. She is finally together with the man she so dearly loved, and missed. May they both rest in peace. Blanca Barrera Uriza
blanca More than 1 year ago
I want to thank you for the beautiul tribute to my parents. After so many years, my dad's achievements are still recognized, and now my mother rests by his side. She is finally together with the man she so dearly loved, and missed. May they both rest in peace. Blanca Barrera Uriza
Yuwipi More than 1 year ago
What a bittersweet article Jay. Can't pass up a chance to thank you for stirring up some very fond memories. You know back in the day Laz Barrera and many of the top California guys used to ship to NY regularly. We used to have a half hour TV show on Saturday's here in NY hosted by Frank Wright, Charlsie Cantey and Dave Johnson. You could rest assured that if Laz was shipping in he would give Frank Wright a nice interview on the show. They had apparently both cut their teeth down in Mexico (Aqua Caliente?) and went way back. Frank Wright's nickname was "Seldom" and he didn't say much, but he'd give Laz a question and viewers would be treated to several minutes of the most enthusiastic stories that would end with both of them smiling ear to ear. I'll never forget Laz's over the top interview concerning Mr. Frikky (I know is was Frisky). The memories are as vivid as yesterday but half a lifetime away. Thanks so much for the piece. I don't comment often but always enjoy your work.
James More than 1 year ago
Horse racing involves horses and people. Most are gambler/handicappers and the others are producers of the sport. It is therefore understandable which side is addressed the most. It is gratifying that the one that covers the people's side the most is the best writer on the block. Jay, I so admire your input in this business. I'm sure it helps to keep many more horse lovers like myself, in the game. Most reports in the Daily Racing Form today are so sickening. With the exception of a few, they show our beautiful sport to be putrid. Even the blogs seem to suggest a sport of a different kind. Thanks for keeping us informed of the people side; the nice-people side. Ones like this, about Carmen; about Jack Whittaker, about Ivan Puhich,and about Oakland Park racing secretary Pat Pope, who said that he was "fortunate to work for people who believe in the way racing was, is and should be". Thanks for enlightening us along the way, dotting your articles with correlative bits of history, and yes thanks for taking care of the person I think the best female rider who ever lived--- who along with Mary Bacon and the likes rode against a better male Jockey population and without the many opportunities bred by them that so many other women enjoy today in our sport. I still remember her winning the Two-Year-Old Breeders Cup race from post-position 12, against the best male riders in the country----But I digress. I do hope your writings are not wasted on the wrong crowd, as you compete with abbreviated communicating today. Read some of the blogs and you have to wonder if we will still be speaking English ten years from today. Anyway, thanks again Jay. I do hope that, like you and Laffit, many others reading your article, will always remember Carmen "Chacha" Barrera; the woman behind Laz, the man behind the great Affirmed.
Ryan Soriano More than 1 year ago
Wonderful Tribute Jay. I have own my piece of history with them as my family's horse, Capt Don ran against Affirmed in the Santa Anita Derby. Capt Don, a champion cal bred in his own right, was no match for the BRILLIANT AFFIRMED. LAZ had plenty of good horses during his tenure to solidify his brilliance.
Ron Gillaspie More than 1 year ago
I still have my little round 2 inch pin handed out at Holltwood Park on June 24, 1979. It simply states "I Saw Affirmed....Hollywood Park Gold Cup".
robdybas More than 1 year ago
Jay, you definitely add much needed class to the sport of horse racing.
Dawood K More than 1 year ago
Jay, No doubt my man you are one of the great authorities on Horse Racing. Without guys like yourself, this sport is dead, because when we all read these beautiful articles that reflect of one's good old days gone bye, it refreshes our souls, which in turn gets us all rejuvinated to live longer and enjoy what we do best with a little hope and lady luck on our side.
Jessica Lynn More than 1 year ago
Jay - what a beautiful tribute!
Vincent Condeni More than 1 year ago
Hi Jay, Thanks for the beautiful and compelling article about racing at its finest! Your writing in the DRF is consistent with the the two brilliant and professional Authors who ever wrote a racing story: Charles Hatton and Joe Hirsch! I also have mixed feeling about IHA winning the Triple Crown. However, as Steven Crist so eloquently wrote, It's up to the Racing Gods and out of mortal hands to decide this vexing issue. As a Gambler and Handicapper, my primary wish in the Belmont is for the Best Horse to Win! Nothing else really matters! Good Luck to all my Special Racing Friends!