03/02/2004 1:00AM

A thrilling day in Big Cap lore


ARCADIA, Calif. - Bob Grossi got it right in his photograph of Affirmed, in full flight and on his way to victory in the 1979 running of the Santa Anita Handicap.

The angle is low, taken from the standside rail of the Santa Anita homestretch, with the dying sun of that March 4 afternoon bathing Affirmed's copper coat in a golden glow. Affirmed is reaching out with both front feet, while Laffit Pincay, resplendent in the black and flamingo pink of Lou and Patrice Wolfson, is preparing to bring down his right-handed whip in perfect cadence with the powerful gathering of Affirmed's next stride.

There are no other horses in the picture.

At that point in the race, Affirmed had pulled away from the ambitious Painted Wagon and was opening daylight on two of the best distance horses in the world. Tiller finished second that day, 4 1/2 lengths behind Affirmed, and Exceller got up for a dead heat with Painted Wagon for third, more than seven lengths behind the winner.

Affirmed's final official time for the 1 1/4 was 1:58 3/5 (recorded in the prehistoric days before hundredths even existed). It was a track record, a full second better than the mark held jointly by Bold Bidder, from the 1966 Strub Stakes, and Quicken Tree, from the 1970 Santa Anita Handicap.

Time, as we know, can be both relative and irrelevant. Still, for more than 40 years, through a variety of track and weather conditions, Santa Anita Park had served as a 1 1/4-mile proving ground for the best possible array of older horses, including Seabiscuit, Citation, Noor, Round Table, Gun Bow, Hill Rise, Pretense, Nodouble, Ack Ack, and Cougar.

Affirmed's record proved only the obvious: that if you turn loose a very good horse against a very good field, he will rise to the occasion.

Affirmed had developed a reputation for cutting it close and doing no more than he had to do to win. It was a false impression. Affirmed beat Alydar time after time, but it was always close because they were brothers in ability. Through the first two years of Affirmed's career, when Affirmed was not confronted by Alydar, no one remembers who finished second.

The Santa Anita Handicap, however, marked a watershed moment in the life of Affirmed. To that point, he could only lay claim to being the best of his generation, a Triple Crown winner who was not quite good enough to beat the cream of the older horses in the fall of his 3-year-old season. The cream, in this instance, was represented by Seattle Slew and Exceller.

The events leading up to the 1979 Santa Anita Handicap stirred operatic emotions. Affirmed spent the early part of his 4-year-old campaign just going through the motions, losing the Malibu Stakes and San Fernando Stakes. Steve Cauthen was replaced by Pincay for the Strub Stakes, and Affirmed responded with a 10-length win. Conclusions were being drawn freely.

Whatever the mix, Affirmed and Pincay wrote pure poetry in the Strub, then went one better in the Santa Anita Handicap. And they did it under conditions that, at least by today's measure, are hard to comprehend.

For starters, Affirmed carried 128 pounds, courtesy of Santa Anita's racing secretary, Lou Eilken. Eilken was an old school secretary, steeped in tradition, whose role models included Walter Vosburgh, John B. Campbell, and his personal mentor, Jimmy Kilroe.

As Eilken saw it, his job was to test the best horses with weight, requiring them to work for their reputations. A "handicap" was to be taken seriously, as long as the track advertised it that way.

So Affirmed's 128 was earned after his romp in the Strub, in which he carried 126. To Eilken, Exceller's brilliant 1978 campaign more than justified his 127, even though he had not raced for four months. And even though Tiller had carried only 121 in winning the San Antonio, Eilken wasn't fooled. He ignored the San Antonio, which was weighted by allowances, and took his cue from Tiller's impressive victory under 126 on the dirt in the 1 1/4-mile San Marcos. For the Handicap, Tiller carried 127.

The presence of Affirmed and the prospect of challenges from 5-year-old Tiller and 6-year-old Exceller attracted a crowd of 66,560. Only five of 41 previous Handicaps drew a larger audience.

Steve Ferraro remembers it well. He trained Painted Wagon, a classy 6-year-old who had finished second to Tiller in the San Antonio.

"Saddling the horses that day, it was the most electric moment I've ever experienced," said Ferraro, who still owns a handful of horses today. "You literally couldn't see the paddock from the saddling enclosure, there were so many people. And it was because of Affirmed."

With Cauthen bounced by Laz Barrera from Affirmed, Ferraro landed the young champion for the Handicap mount on Painted Wagon. Fairy tales sometimes come true, but not on this day, and not when up against Affirmed.

"I had no delusions about beating Affirmed," Ferraro said. "But I thought he would run well, and I was very pleased he was able to dead-heat for third. You know, the more I think about it, that's probably the most exciting day I've ever had in racing."