05/15/2002 12:00AM

Rivalry? Alydar only wishes

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Before we start, full disclosure is required. I confess, once again, that Affirmed was the greatest Thoroughbred these eyes ever saw, and that anything I might say or write about Affirmed will be tainted with an almost disabling prejudice. At the same time, this does not keep me from reacting like a mother wolverine at the slightest whiff of an attack on Affirmed's legacy.

That is why, for the past few weeks, I have been weeping like a soccer fan at the thought of the book published in April by Eclipse Press, a subsidiary of The Blood-Horse. It is called "Affirmed and Alydar: Racing's Greatest Rivarly," and it is one of 16 books in a series known as Thoroughbred Legends.

The other 15 have only one horse in the title. Dr. Fager got his own book. So did Native Dancer, Go for Wand, Personal Ensign, Nashua, and Sunday Silence. None of them, it should be noted, was either a Triple Crown winner, a two-time Horse of the Year, or the greatest Thoroughbred these eyes ever saw!

Okay, I've calmed down. Half a book with a bad premise might be better than none at all. It is possible the publisher felt Affirmed could not carry a title alone. There is a chance that customer research indicated a demand for a book detailing the way Affirmed finished ahead of Alydar eight times in 10 races. And no one would disagree that Alydar was a horse of considerable quality. After all, he won the Florida Derby, the Blue Grass, and the Whitney, fine races also won by Plugged Nickle, Wild Syn, and Fio Rito.

Still, there seems to linger some confusion. Why else, 24 years after the fact, would anyone continue to confuse the difference between Affirmed and Alydar? Let's face it, the "rivalry" between Affirmed and Alydar was about as unpredictable as the ongoing conflict between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

It has been 25 years since both colts came on the scene as 2-year-olds at Belmont Park. Affirmed made his first start on May 24, 1977. Alydar came out on June 15. That year they met six times, and Alydar defeated Affirmed twice, fair and square. But when they grew up, it was all Affirmed.

It was Affirmed in the 1978 Derby when Alydar charged with too little too late. It was Affirmed in the Preakness, smooth as silk, with Alydar scraping at his neck. Then it was Affirmed over Alydar in the Belmont Stakes, winning the Triple Crown by the length of his handsome head.

It was Affirmed again, later that summer, in a Travers that lives in infamy. Affirmed's number had to come down - the foul was obvious - and Alydar was put up in his place. But to contend that Alydar was going to win anyway is sad, wishful thinking. And to confuse the inconclusive results of one messy race with a year's worth of hard evidence - as author Tim Capps does in "Racing's Greatest Rivalry" - is just plain wrong:

"Thus, the Travers, the tenth meeting of Affirmed and Alydar, had ended unsatisfactorily, none of the intriguing questions about the relative merits of these two great Thoroughbreds having been answered."

Some people just can't take "no" for an answer. Was Alydar a better racehorse than Affirmed? No. Was Alydar even as good a racehorse as Affirmed? No. Were Alydar's sons and daughters more successful than the sons and daughters of Affirmed? Yes, by most measures. But so what? Stud careers have nothing to do with the "relative merits" of Thoroughbred racehorses.

There are those who insist that Al Gore won the 2000 election, but at least they can say their candidate got a half-million more votes than the other guy. What can the Alydar lobby claim?

"Nice try."

"Near miss."

"Oooh, another close one."

Alydar is buried at Calumet Farm. His rest is not easy. His death remains troubling. Affirmed, hopefully, can spend his eternity in peace, as long as no one shows him this book. He died in January 2001, at the age of 26, and is buried near the stallion barn at Jonabell Farm in Lexington. The farm has been sold to Sheikh Mohammed, and the Bell family is moving soon. But Affirmed will stay behind.

Patrice and Lou Wolfson, his breeders and owners, have commissioned a bronze from the noted sculptor Gwen Reardon to adorn the grave. They have chosen a standing pose for Affirmed, with his body aligned in graceful perfection and his head angled just so, as if he were turning to consider a hawk swooping low over a distant pasture.

For now, the site is unmarked, awaiting the bronze, although there is no doubt about who is buried there. The landscaping is a dead giveaway, consisting of red roses, black-eyed susans, and white carnations.

"Sheikh Mohammed is very respectful of that horse," said John Williams, who helped managed Affirmed's career at stud. "I think we'll be able to go see him forever."

Good, because Affirmed was a forever kind of horse.