06/01/2012 4:37PM

Hovdey: Triple Crown history laid to rest

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.”