04/16/2002 11:00PM

This year's story lacks '78 dynamic

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - A study in contrasts.

There are almost as many opinions about the outcome of the 128th Kentucky Derby on May 4 as there will be starters - quite likely the maximum of 20. That wasn't the case with the 104th Kentucky Derby of 1978. In a field of 11, wagering focused primarily on two horses. Alydar, the champion of the East after victories in the Flamingo, the Florida Derby, and the Blue Grass Stakes, was the favorite at 6-5. Affirmed, the champion of the West after winning the San Felipe, the Santa Anita Derby, and the Hollywood Derby, was second choice at 9-5.

They were the rivals of the ages even before the opening of the classic season. They clashed in six stakes at 2 and finished one-two in five of them. Their celebrity grew with every victory, and the atmosphere at Churchill Downs on Derby Day was tense.

"After he won the Blue Grass by 13 lengths," Alydar's trainer John Veitch recalled recently, "our confidence was high, though I was concerned Alydar might have won too easily. He was a horse who needed a lot of work to be at his best. We discovered early that he needed a blowout of three-eighths of a mile the morning before a race to be sharp.

"One morning in his 2-year-old season he blew out in 37 and change and I knew that wasn't enough for him. We waited an hour and then brought him back to the track and he went a quarter in something like 24. He ran the next day and won."

Veitch, who learned his trade under outstanding horsemen, including his father, Syl Veitch, and Elliott Burch, has always been a strong believer in fitness. His record in major stakes is exceptional.

For whatever reason, however, Alydar's Kentucky Derby effort was less than his best. He left the gate under restraint, moved up steadily, and closed well through the stretch, but never seriously threatened Affirmed, who was prominent throughout and won by a comfortable 1 1/2 lengths.

It was a different story in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. At Pimlico, Alydar was closer to the pace and missed to Affirmed by a neck. It was even closer in the memorable Belmont, Affirmed winning by a head.

"In retrospect," Veitch said, "I may have erred in using the Blue Grass for Alydar's Derby prep. At the time, the Blue Grass was run only nine days before the Derby and there wasn't enough time to familiarize Alydar with the Churchill Downs track, which does not suit all horses.

"But there were other considerations," Veitch continued. "Admiral and Mrs. Markey, who owned Alydar, were at the farm in Lexington. They weren't able to attend the Derby because of their age and frail health yet they wanted to see Alydar run. It had to be the Blue Grass, and [Keeneland chairman] Ted Bassett made it an occasion for them by arranging a viewing site at the head of the stretch."

Veitch developed a number of other fine horses for Calumet Farm, including the 3-year-old filly champion and Alabama winner Our Mims; the 3-year-old filly champion and Coaching Club American Oaks winner Davona Dale; and the 2-year-old filly champion and Spinaway winner Before Dawn.

He also had a productive tour with the Darby Dan Farm stable of the late John Galbreath, for whom he trained the Washington, D.C. International winner Sunshine Forever. Galbreath's horses won other important features in the United States and Europe, but Galbreath often said the victory that meant the most to him was Proud Truth's success in the Breeders' Cup Classic of 1985, with Veitch the winning trainer.

Veitch, who trained overseas in recent years for a member of Saudi Arabia's royal family, has some horses training in South Carolina. He is putting together a public stable, will race in his native Kentucky this summer, and hopes to take a unit of the stable to Saratoga.