05/30/2008 12:00AM

Reliving racing's ultimate rivalry


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is no secret handshake. All dues were paid long ago. Meetings are rarely called, and attendance is not really required, especially since the agenda has remained unchanged for, oh, about 30 years or so.

Still, it is a treat when the club convenes, as it did this week via teleconference to mark yet another attempt to breach the formidable barricade known as the Triple Crown. The surviving members of the great battle of 1978 for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes were all in good form, as they reached back through the years to remind their audience just how lucky they were to be touched by those chestnut miracles named Affirmed and Alydar.

Horse racing has nurtured any number of entertaining feuds. Swaps and Nashua faced each other only twice, but their camps were always ready to throw down on principle alone. The younger Gun Bow gave true believers a righteous warrior to battle Kelso, and then a few years later, Damascus and Dr. Fager threatened to tear the republic in two. Or at least it felt that way when I went round and round with my high school pal Tommy Wineland, who looked upon the Good Doctor as the second coming.

Then came Affirmed and Alydar. And suddenly, by comparison, all other so-called rivalries seemed like petty squabbles over lunch money.

The last time the club met, in June 2004, Smarty Jones was perched on the ledge of history, peering about 1 1/2 miles down at a pit littered with the hopes and dreams attached to horses like Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, and Funny Cide, among others. Then Birdstone won the Belmont, and Smarty joined them.

This time around, Big Brown prompted the exclusive club to reflect once again on the Triple Crown business at hand. With the death of Lou Wolfson earlier this year, the Affirmed half of the membership was reduced by a significant one. But Patrice Wolfson was there, along with Affirmed's jockey, Steve Cauthen, as well as Alydar's main men, John Veitch and Jorge Velasquez.

"There was something special about those two horses," Veitch said. "I've never seen the media respond as they did for those two horses at the Belmont. Certainly, the Derby is a media frenzy. But the Belmont kicked it up another notch.

"I was as confident as I was going into the Derby or the Preakness, and even maybe a little bit more so," Veitch added. "All the stars lined up perfectly for us. We were truly beaten by a great racehorse."

Cauthen had just turned 18 as the 1978 Triple Crown commenced.

"The races just kept getting better and better," he said. "Any Alydar fan would tell you that next time he's gonna get him. And I never, ever lost any respect for Alydar. He never gave up. The three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont was the toughest three weeks in my life. The world was wanting to know what was going on. It was really cool. But I was getting a little nervous.

"To be quite honest, more than anything else, that's what I'm the proudest of, that it was such an important thing for racing," Cauthen added. "There weren't any losers involved."

Of course, that's easy for him to say. After all, he rode Affirmed, which means for the past 30 years he has had to listen to Velasquez relive the bitter Belmont defeat.

"With a mile to go, I asked my horse to run, because Steve was just cruising," Velasquez recalled. "When we got to the three-sixteenths pole, I got a head in front. And what happened, Steve? You hurt me again. You rode a perfect race. I believe I rode a perfect race. But somebody's got to win and somebody's got to lose."

Cauthen offered his parallel point of view.

"Jorgie moved up seven furlongs out, and we were doing a little bit of cat and mouse down the backside," he said. "Obviously, going into the final turn the race really started heating up. As we were about to turn into the stretch, I sensed [in Affirmed] a slight sense of fatigue. I was starting to sense with some urgency that we might be in trouble. The thought crossed my mind, 'This is it. It's now or never.' I trusted Affirmed's courage, and his desire to win. But I pretty much had to ask him for everything that day."

"But you were so young!" Velasquez exclaimed. "Probably, you didn't even know what you did until maybe six months later."

"Too dumb to know, right?" Cauthen replied, and everyone laughed.

In the end, it was left to Patrice Wolfson to give voice to the nagging question of time passed since Affirmed became the last horse to win the Triple Crown.

"I had no idea it would ever take this long," she said. "I think it just shows how great a horse he was - to do what he did, and to run with a horse like Alydar. It was something I think the racing world will never forget."

So the answer is simple. There has been no horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed because, since that magic spring of 1978, there has been no horse like Affirmed, and no horse like Alydar to bring out the best in both.