08/22/2013 1:29PM

Affirmed and Alydar's Travers showdown still rouses emotions

Bob Coglianese
Affirmed pulls away from Alydar in the 1978 Travers, the last of their 10 meetings. Alydar was awarded the win after Affirmed was disqualified for interference.

In 150 years of races on Union Avenue, none has been anticipated more than the Travers on Aug. 19, 1978. This was the 10th meeting of Affirmed and Alydar, in the oldest stakes race in the country, and two months after their soul-stirring clash in the Belmont Stakes, Affirmed denying Alydar once more with all the chips down.

For two months Saratoga had readied itself for the 109th Travers, the anticipation bubbling and then bursting to the surface like the mineral springs that rise through limestone and shale to give the town its name. This process played out in human form inside those associated with Affirmed and Alydar, perhaps none more so than John Veitch, Alydar’s trainer, whose expectation of victory was overwhelming.

“It was gonna be our day,” Veitch said early this month, weeks before Saturday’s 144th running of the Travers. “The Derby was disappointing, the Preakness was disappointing, the Belmont was almost heartbreaking, but the Travers was going to be – if not revenge – was going to prove that Alydar really was the champion I had always thought he was.”

What happened was only one of the most famous disqualifications in history, a race that to this day stirs disappointment and bitterness and never-ending questions. The few answers are that Alydar was nearly killed, Affirmed finished first but lost for the first time that year, and a record crowd at Saratoga responded with boos. Thirty-five years later, the race lives long in the memory. This is the story of that race, as told through recent interviews with those who played major roles in this classic drama, their recollections as vivid as ever.

‘. . . all this pent-up emotion’

To understand the significance of the 1978 Travers, and why the outcome was so unsatisfying for Veitch, one must rewind to that fateful afternoon at Belmont Park on June 10, 1978. Affirmed and Alydar had battled over two legs of the Triple Crown, the margin dwindling but Affirmed always on top. In the Belmont they staged one of the greatest races in history. Pitched together as if on side-by-side paths, the two sprinted the fastest second six furlongs in Belmont Stakes history, Near the eighth pole it looked like Alydar had finally hooked his nemesis, but Affirmed was only shifting gears.

As Bill Nack described it in Sports Illustrated many years later, “He battled through the last 220 yards – his right eye rolling back to watch his rival, like Moby Dick peering back at Ahab lashed to his side – and won by a head.”

Charlie Rose, Alydar’s exercise rider, was standing right at the wire. “I knew he just got beat a head, a short head. And the tears flowed,” he says. “Not because we lost, it was all this pent-up emotion over this thing going on for months. And now it was over.”

PHOTO: Affirmed outduels Alydar by a head to complete the Triple Crown in the Belmont in June 1978. It was Affirmed’s fourth straight win over Alydar. (Bob Coglianese)

The heartrending of Alydar’s connections and the joy of Affirmed’s gave way to exhaustion. During the Triple Crown, Laz Barrera, Affirmed’s late trainer, would often wake up in the middle of the night and call the barn. “Is Affirmed all right?” he would ask the foreman. His doctors told him he had to relax more, his wife, Carmen, later recalled, and in the Belmont she thought he would have a heart attack on the spot. (He had open heart surgery the next year.)

“After the Belmont, Affirmed was dead tired,” recalls Steve Cauthen, his celebrated rider in those races. “Since then I’ve heard that he had a low-grade chest or something, that Laz wasn’t telling me about, because he didn’t want me to lose any confidence going into the Belmont.”

Alydar’s team had expected their chestnut colt to wear down Affirmed at the Belmont’s 12-furlong distance but were confounded that they had lost yet again. Instead, Alydar entered history as the only horse to finish second in each leg of the Triple Crown.

“I thought he could beat Affirmed again, but I had at that point kind of conceded Affirmed might be a little better horse,” Rose, now 82, says. “I never conceded that up until the Belmont. You know, I could throw out the Derby and I could throw out the Preakness, but the Belmont, man, you couldn’t throw that one out.”

‘We were going to get our revenge’

Barrera and Veitch intended to race their charges once over the track before the Midsummer Derby. But a few weeks after the Belmont, Veitch was forced to change his arrangements.

“I couldn’t keep Alydar on the ground,” he says.

So Veitch sent Alydar to Chicago for the Arlington Classic. On July 22, Calumet Farm’s star blitzed a field of overmatched 3-year-olds, winning by 13 lengths in a sizzling 2:00 1/5 for 1 1/4 miles.

Back at Saratoga, Alydar settled in at Veitch’s white-painted barn in Clare Court, the leafy oasis encircling a half-mile deep dirt track that August Belmont built in 1905 as his own private training yard. Affirmed resided near the Oklahoma training track at the opposite end of Saratoga’s considerable footprint, beyond the main track and Union Avenue. Their training camps were far apart like two prizefighters secluded in their main-event preparations.

Their paths to the Travers did not cross, raising the anticipation: Veitch chose for Alydar the opening-day Whitney against older horses on Aug. 5, and Barrera decided on the Jim Dandy, three days later. Track officials held their collective breath that separate victories would make their 10th meeting unblemished.

“I knew it was a tall order for Alydar to run against older horses,” Veitch says. “But when we got to Saratoga he just absolutely blossomed. He was better and better and better, day after day.”

In the Whitney, Alydar met J.O. Tobin, the outstanding English import who had won six stakes that year and vanquished Seattle Slew in the previous year’s Swaps Stakes. Alydar was sent off the favorite. Jorge Velasquez, back aboard after missing the Arlington Classic, was happy to sit in mid-pack behind an honest pace. Nearing the quarter pole they shot up the inside and in a breathtaking flash ran right by J.O. Tobin as if he were tied to a post. They won by 10 lengths in 1:47 2/5 for nine furlongs, two ticks off the track record.

Veitch and Velasquez were over the moon. As he had after the Arlington Classic, Alydar seemed to come out of the Whitney stronger than he entered. Still, the question remained: How could this horse win so brilliantly and in near-record times, as he had in the Triple Crown prep races, but never against Affirmed?

Veitch, however, was unbowed. “I was very optimistic that we were going to get our revenge,” he says. 

PHOTO: Alydar romps by 10 lengths in the Whitney, two weeks before the Travers. Affirmed had a much rougher prep, rallying to win the Jim Dandy by a half-length. (Bob Coglianese)

Affirmed had a tall order ahead. Three days later, overnight rain left an off track for the nine-furlong Jim Dandy, and his task grew heavier when Allen Jerkens’s Sensitive Prince shook clear for an eight-length lead in the small field of five.

“Early on in the race he wasn’t happy,” Cauthen remembers. “Going into that first turn it felt like he was slipping a little bit. He wasn’t confident. I was trying to give him every chance to do it on his own, because obviously I had a ton of faith in him.”

Turning into the stretch, Affirmed was still six lengths behind. Sensitive Prince had sprinted three quarters in 1:10 1/5, and he came to the eighth pole in 1:35 flat, his lead still four lengths over Affirmed, who lugged nine more pounds. It seemed impossible Affirmed could get there.

“Affirmed was a horse that never gave up,” Cauthen says. “Finally Sensitive Prince hit a little bit of a wall, and Affirmed kept grinding away, picking it up, doing his thing.”

Affirmed drew a straight line as if magnetized to the wire, and in the final jumps he surged past Sensitive Prince by an expanding half-length. It was a spectacular finish.


‘Four losses in a row don’t show me any new way’

The Travers was in 11 days, and the script was set perfectly. Then, the next day, Cauthen went down in a spill at Saratoga. He immediately realized that his knee injury would keep him from riding the Travers.

Barrera named Laffit Pincay Jr. as his replacement. Pincay had ridden Affirmed twice before, once at Hollywood in 1977 and that spring at Santa Anita when Cauthen sat out with a suspension. Both times they had won.

“Nonetheless, it was suggested that Affirmed without Cauthen was like Silver without the Lone Ranger,” wrote Bill Leggett in Sports Illustrated, “and in the days leading up to the Travers, a lot of people were asking the same question: ‘How much will the loss of Cauthen hurt Affirmed’s chances?’ ”

The jockey change and prospects of another desperate battle were taxing Barrera.

“Won’t this ever end?” he asked one morning before the Travers. “The record is seven wins for Affirmed and two for Alydar. If this was boxing, he wouldn’t get no more shots at the title. For a young man who is supposed to be a good trainer, Veitch certainly say some stupid things. He always says he has a new way to beat Affirmed. What new way? Seven out of nine and four losses in a row to Affirmed don’t show me any new way.”

PHOTO: Trainer Laz Barrera with Affirmed in 1978. (Bob Coglianese)

The pressure was also on Velasquez. He had led the nation in wins before and sat with Shoemaker, Angel Cordero, and Pincay in career earnings, but the reticent, consummate professional rode in the shadow of Cordero’s high-wire act in New York and then, during the Triple Crown, the boy wonder Cauthen, who was 18. Three times he thought he had Affirmed and Cauthen beat but lost each time.

“I beat him in the Champagne as a 2-year-old,” Velasquez says. “In that race I knew right there I could beat him. But I couldn’t after that. It was heartbreaking.”

But in the days after the Whitney, rider and trainer grew in confidence, as Veitch watched Alydar at his pinnacle of vigor and fitness.

“It was going to be the race of the year, I thought, for both horses,” Veitch says. “Alydar came out of the Triple Crown better than he went in, and I had been questioning whether Affirmed was going to be as good in the Travers as he had been in the Triple Crown. That gave me a great deal of encouragement.”

Encouraged, too, were Alydar’s owners, Lucille and Admiral Gene Markey. Calumet, which Lucille Markey had inherited from her late husband, Warren Wright, had drifted into the doldrums in the 1960s, but Alydar helped revitalize its venerated name. The elder couple was infirm and able to watch Alydar in person only once, in the Blue Grass. But they lived in Saratoga during the meet, and Veitch, who began training for Calumet in 1976, called Lucille Markey regularly with optimistic reports.

One afternoon shortly before the Travers, the Admiral and Mrs. Markey were being chauffeured through downtown Saratoga in their silver Rolls-Royce.

“They stopped at a stoplight,” Veitch recalls, “and somebody recognized them, and the crowd started chanting, ‘Alydar, Alydar, Alydar.’ Mrs. Markey was very excited. As soon as she got home she picked up the telephone and told me about it, how proud she was of her horse.”

Much like Calumet, Saratoga had passed through its own doldrums in the ’60s and was on its way out. Crowds had started to return, and on and off the track the Travers was all people could talk about. National reporters flocked to upstate New York.

The attention also tested Veitch’s nerves. A little more than a week before the Travers, he sent Charlie Rose to Monmouth Park with Calumet’s talented 2-year-old Tim the Tiger for the Sapling Stakes. Rose knew Alydar as well as any horse in his 50-year career as an exercise rider. His absence didn’t please Alydar. With Rose gone for three days, Alydar proved unruly for other exercise riders. Veitch considered sending a plane to fly Rose back to Saratoga.

PHOTO: Trainer John Veitch, here with Alydar, said the disappointment of winning by disqualification and not in a fair contest took him years to get over. (National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame)

The night of the Sapling, Rose remembers, “John came down and said, ‘Get in the car and get back to Saratoga right away.’ I had to get back to get on Alydar for the last week before the Travers and get things straightened out.”

“I was more excited and wound up for the Travers than the Derby,” Veitch admits. “The Travers was really the anticipation of a victory I felt we deserved. Alydar was better coming into the Travers than any race in his career.”

Pincay, riding on the opposite coast, had all but escaped the pressure cooker before the race. But he had his own challenges. The night before the Travers, the first leg of his flight to New York, from Los Angeles to Chicago, arrived late and he and his wife missed their connection. They were forced to spend the night in the airport.

“It’s kind of tough to sleep sitting down,” Pincay says. “I didn’t fall asleep until 5 in the morning.”

When Pincay and his wife awoke, they found that the airline had bumped them from their flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where they would take a helicopter to Saratoga. They had one seat between them, but Pincay did not want to leave his wife behind.

“This one gracious man gave me his seat next to her,” he says. “I lost his card, and to this day I am so sorry that I never got to thank him for his generosity so I could go to Saratoga to ride Affirmed.”

‘Don’t let him get too far in front’

When Pincay finally arrived in Saratoga that afternoon, a crowd of more than 50,000, which began lining up at 5:30 to see “one of the best animal acts in history,” as Leggett put it, had already gathered. They asked each other: What would these two horses do for an encore? The infield was opened to accommodate the record numbers. There was a fast track, and it was a perfect summer day. An hour before post time fans started to amass along the white-fenced paddock, stretching four-deep out to the track. Affirmed arrived first to applause, then the Puerto Rican import Shake Shake Shake and Nasty and Bold, and finally Alydar.

“I walked over with Alydar from my barn in Clare Court,” Veitch says. “And the fans yelling, ‘Alydar, Alydar,’ it was a very emotional thing. I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally involved with a horse or a race as I was with the Travers, either before or since.”

It was clear that Shake Shake Shake and Angel Cordero would try for the lead, Affirmed would be stuck on him, and at some point in the stretch Pincay would look over his right shoulder for Alydar. Velasquez expected Shake Shake Shake to hang around to the quarter pole, softening up Affirmed, and then he would loop around and bang Affirmed sight unseen.

“That was the problem with Affirmed – you couldn’t let him see you,” Velasquez says. “When he sees the other horse he opens up.”

Inside the paddock, Veitch’s instructions for his rider were deliberately minimal: Keep an eye on Affirmed and don’t let him get too far in front. “He knew Alydar, he knew Affirmed, and we were hoping that everything worked out and we’d have a nice clear and clean race,” Veitch says. The last thing Velasquez said to him, Veitch remembers, was that this was their day.


PHOTO: The incident that led to Affirmed’s disqualification in the 1978 Travers. Down the backstretch, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. dropped Affirmed to the rail, cutting Alydar off and causing him to fall back several lengths.

Affirmed was sent off the 7-10 favorite, and Alydar even money. Shake Shake Shake, on the inside, and Affirmed left the gate together, and Alydar eagerly joined them in the long run past the clubhouse. Going into the turn, Pincay says that Cordero shouted to him that his horse was trying to get out. Shake Shake Shake started to bear out, and as they straightened away Pincay lost even more ground on Affirmed. Velasquez drew Alydar back alongside Nasty and Bold, a length and a half behind the front two.

“On the backside we were wide,” Pincay says. “I don’t know if Angel couldn’t or wouldn’t get to the inside. So I had to move earlier to get the lead.”

The inside opened for Velasquez, and he steered Alydar into the vacancy. They traveled swiftly up to Affirmed as Shake Shake Shake began to drop out after three quarters in 1:11 3/5. Alydar hugged the rail and drew within a half-length of Affirmed. The race was on.

Pincay says he believed Alydar was a couple of lengths behind, and so as not to lose ground into the turn, he nudged Affirmed, who accelerated quickly in hand, and calmly dropped him toward the rail. He thought he had enough room to drop over. But Alydar was on his heels, only Pincay says he did not realize it until after the race.

Cut off, Alydar struck the fence, and Velasquez thought he was going down. He grabbed the reins and yanked Alydar’s head violently to stay up. Alydar jumped over Affirmed’s hind legs to avoid catastrophe, lost stride, and dropped back six lengths.

There was a collective gasp from the stands, almost like a moan or murmur. Many thought Alydar broke down.

“It wasn’t until Jorge got back down on him and got him back in stride that I realized he had been cut off,” Veitch says. “And Jorge realized he could be second.”

Alydar recovered dramatically. Only his exceptional athleticism saved him from going down, and he rolled past Nasty and Bold on the outside and to the hindquarters of Affirmed in midstretch. But the contest had been decided earlier. Velasquez knew he only had to get second so they would gain from a disqualification. Affirmed finished 1 3/4 lengths clear.

‘I knew we were coming down’

The inquiry sign flashed instantly, and Velasquez claimed foul. The crowd, unhappy and disappointed, booed as the horses returned in front of the stands.

“I crossed the wire, and Jorge came up to me and said, ‘Congratulations.’ In hindsight he must’ve been sarcastic,” Pincay says. “I said, ‘Thank you.’ I came back and saw the inquiry sign, and I thought, what happened? Then I saw my number blinking, and I thought it only could’ve happened on the turn. I kept thinking I was clear. Then I watched the replay. I knew we were coming down.”

Cauthen was sitting with Affirmed’s owners, Louis and Patrice Wolfson, in their box, and his sense of unease and anxiety for missing the race only grew.

“The Wolfsons were like, ‘What happened?’ ” Cauthen says. “And you know, Affirmed actually crossed the wire in front, so they were obviously hopeful that nothing happened that was his fault. Until they showed you the film, you couldn’t make that determination.”

Pincay was confused that Velasquez did not shout that he was coming over on him. “Jorge never said a word. This baffled me,” Pincay says upon reflection. “Most of the time we let a guy know we’re there. You always holler. If he said, ‘Hey, I’m here,’ I would’ve stayed out and given him a place to go. I never heard a peep. Nothing.”

Years later, Pincay asked Velasquez about this. “He said, ‘You didn’t give me a chance,’ ” Pincay says with a chuckle. 

Velasquez explained to Veitch what happened as the trainer unsaddled Alydar, who save for some cuts and bruises on both front legs, was unhurt. Minutes later, the stewards disqualified Affirmed and put up Alydar, and Veitch hastily accepted the trophy and left the winner’s circle.

Veitch initially believed Pincay had acted purposefully, although he now feels differently. “There is no place on a racetrack for any rider who does that,” he fumed in the moments after the Travers. “No, I’m not happy winning this way. It’s hollow as hell. Do you realize that one of the best horses to come along in years was almost killed out there in front of the biggest crowd in Saratoga history?”

Sitting in his box, Barrera voiced the opinion of many that the Eastern jockeys – Cordero and Velasquez – had ganged up on Pincay, Cordero delivering the rail to Velasquez. To which Cordero responded that his horse was bearing out almost all the way around.

To this day, Velasquez bats away any alleged conspiracy.

“Laz was always pissed off when he got beat,” he says. “He could say whatever he wants to say. You know he’s going to be pissed off. He got taken down in the Travers. There was no conspiracy.

“Knowing Angel, how much he wants to win, in the Travers you think Angel is going to open it up for me?” he asks incredulously. “Don’t blame Angel. Don’t blame me. Blame your jockey who made a mistake.”

Velasquez was very upset after the race – other jockeys might have resorted to a fistfight – but he took refuge in the jockeys’ room.

“I put water in my mouth and went upstairs to this sleeping room, and I laid down and tried to cool off,” he says. “I didn’t want to say anything to Laffit. I was angry. I tried to calm down and relax. We wanted to win legitimately, not by him being taken down. I was supposed to ride the last race. They were looking for me but couldn’t find me.”

Pincay and Velasquez were close friends from Presidente Remon in Panama City, where they learned the basics of riding together and then competed as apprentices before Velasquez left for the United States, followed soon after by Pincay. Years later, Pincay apologized to Velasquez, and later to Veitch, on a radio show where they were both invited.

“Angel Cordero will tell you that I was one of the cleanest riders he ever rode against,” Pincay says. “It was a mistake on my part. My horse opened up so fast I thought I was clear. I regret it. I’d rather get beat in a race than get disqualified.

“I’d never do something like that on purpose,” he adds firmly. “You’re playing with somebody’s life.”

In the wake of the race, and even now, there is a belief that Pincay, perhaps under pressure as Cauthen’s replacement, panicked after seeing Alydar loom boldly to his inside. Pincay bristles at this.

“How am I going to panic?” he asks. “I was on the lead, and the pace was nice and easy. And I thought I was on the best horse.”

‘We’re going to get him next time’

As for Veitch, thinking through that day leads him to sigh, emotion forcing itself into his memories as if he had played them on a loop every day for 35 years.

“It left a very bitter taste in my mouth,” he says. “And it took me a while to get over it. I was greatly disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity, in a fair contest, to prove that Alydar was the equal to Affirmed.”

Disappointment and confusion also ran through the town after the race. At the Wishing Well restaurant, Bill Nack dined with Tommy Gentry, the Kentucky breeder, and Chic Anderson, the New York race-caller. Anderson pulled out a roll of hundred-dollar bills to boast that he had won a thousand on Alydar. This irked Gentry.

“This is dirty money. You don’t deserve this,” Gentry told his friend. “This is a DQ. The Triple Crown winner finished first.”

Gentry grabbed the money from Anderson’s hand, and announced to the assembled diners: “Drinks are on the house.”

“And Tommy spent every dollar of Chic’s money,” Nack recalls now with a great laugh.

Back at Clare Court, Velasquez carried a bottle of champagne with him to celebrate the victory. It was never opened. The jockey spoke to Alydar in front of his stall. “We’re going to get him next time,” he said, according to Bill Leggett. “It’s a shame we couldn’t have done it on our own. You were going to beat him. This way is the worst way for the thing, between you and Affirmed.”

Pincay spent another night at Kennedy, and the last thing he wanted to do was ride at Del Mar the next day. “I was very close to taking off that day. But I answered all the questions asked of me. And I won four races that day.”

Veitch looked over Alydar and, seeing no injury, proposed the Marlboro Cup against older horses for the colt’s next start. Barrera planned the same. Everybody assumed a new dimension in their rivalry, more hard-edged perhaps, was ahead.

But a week before the Marlboro Cup, Alydar broke the coffin bone in his left front foot. He raced six more times in 1979 but was never quite the same. Affirmed lost to Seattle Slew in the Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and after two more losses in 1979 he never tasted defeat again. Pincay replaced Cauthen, as Affirmed finished his career with seven straight wins, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup over Spectacular Bid. He retired as the richest racehorse in history.

Affirmed and Alydar never met again.

Affirmed vs. Alydar

Affirmed and Alydar met 10 times, finishing 1-2 in all but one of the races.

Race Date Track Winner
Travers Aug. 19, 1978 Saratoga Alydar (Affirmed DQ'd from first)
Belmont Stakes June 10, 1978 Belmont Affirmed by a head
Preakness May 20, 1978 Pimlico Affirmed by a neck
Kentucky Derby May 6, 1978 Churchill Affirmed by 1 1/2
Laurel Futurity Oct. 29, 1977 Laurel Affirmed by a neck
Champagne Oct. 15, 1977 Belmont Alydar by 1 1/4
Futurity Sept. 10, 1977 Belmont Affirmed by a nose
Hopeful Aug. 27, 1977 Saratoga Affirmed by 1/2
Great American July 6, 1977 Belmont Alydar by 3 1/2
Youthful June 15, 1977 Belmont Affirmed (Alydar fifth by 5)