05/31/2012 11:06AM

Q&A: John Veitch on Affirmed-Alydar and the Triple Crown

Coady Photography/Keeneland

Retired Hall of Famer best known as the trainer of Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed in all three Triple Crown races in 1978, the last time a horse swept all three races. He served as chief steward in Kentucky during a six-year tenure that ended in controversy over the Life At Ten incident at the 2010 Breeders’ Cup. He has a suit pending against the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission over his firing in late November. His late father, Syl, was also a Hall of Fame trainer.

Age: 66

Residence: Lexington, Ky.

Family: wife, Ellen; two children

Do you still get asked very often about the Affirmed-Alydar Triple Crown races, especially the Belmont? Yes, I do, particularly by race fans. They say you can’t mention Affirmed without mentioning Alydar, or vice versa. They say they were big fans of Alydar, fans of the rivalry. It actually gives me a very wonderful feeling to have been part of something that’s been so well remembered.

How often do you replay those races in your mind, thinking that maybe Alydar or you or Jorge Velasquez could have done something different? Initially, after the races were over, particularly the Belmont, I replayed them very often in my mind. I talked not only to Jorge, but also to my father, who was alive at the time. I went over my training regimen to see if there was something I did wrong or overlooked. I went over it with Charlie Rose [assistant and exercise rider] and Clyde Sparks [groom], basically trying to see if I was to blame. Really, the only thing I could never overcome was that we could never get Alydar to change leads in his races. In training in the mornings, he changed perfectly. At Hialeah, I’d take him up there in the three-eighths chute and do figure-eights with him like a skater would do, and he would change leads like a ballerina. But in the running of the race, even for a mile and a half in the Belmont, he’d run all the way around there on his left lead. I never did figure it out.

Pretend you’re Laz Barrera, the late trainer of Affirmed, and talk about how proud you are of the legacy of Affirmed and Alydar. I’ll tell you something Laz told me after both horses were retired. He said, “Affirmed has run against many great horses, but none of them caused me to lose a moment’s sleep or any great concern – except for Alydar.” He said he knew he had to have Affirmed at his very best every time he competed against Alydar, which to me was a tremendous compliment.

What was the relationship like between the camps at the peak of the rivalry? It was the most amazing, competitive relationship that I’ve ever experienced or seen, even with all my father was involved in. There was nothing but respect and admiration between Admiral and Mrs. Markey and Lou and Patrice Wolfson, between myself and Laz, between Jorge and Stevie Cauthen.

Will I’ll Have Another win next Saturday? I think it will be his toughest challenge. He’s going to face two horses superior to him at the distance that are reasonably fresh [Dullahan and Union Rags]. I think [Mario] Gutierrez has ridden two tremendous races, but the Belmont, to me, is not only a horse’s race but also a jockey’s race. It’s run at such a unique distance on the dirt that sometimes inexperience is a detriment. We saw that with Spectacular Bid and Ronnie Franklin. But I think this will be his most difficult challenge . . . I wish I had Alydar in it.

Since Affirmed, 11 horses have won the Derby and Preakness but lost in the Belmont. Which of them were your favorites? Charismatic, to me, was a heartbreaker. He was a horse that really had the opportunity, kind of like Tim Tam. He sticks in my mind more than any of the others, perhaps because of the tragedy involved.

Do you feel like you were treated unfairly the way the whole Life At Ten situation unfolded? Absolutely. I could literally take days and write pages and pages about what a conspiracy there was and what a vendetta there is against me. There were some truly unbelievable things that happened. I feel like I’m Alfred Dreyfus without Emile Zola.

I asked you during the Keeneland meet what you had been up to, and you said, “Not much, I’m bored to death.” Ideally, how would you like to keep busy the next 5 or 10 years? I’m basically stymied. Everything is tied up legally. I put in to take one of the steward spots at Ellis Park, filled out all paperwork to be licensed, and they have not licensed me. It’s not only frustrating, it’s humiliating. It has hurt me professionally, personally, emotionally, financially. What I made in four years I have spent in trying to defend myself. On the other side, it’s not their money, it’s the state’s money. It’s all been so stupid.