Interest in 2-year-old racing usually dissipates in mid-October when the winner of the Champagne Stakes crosses the finish line at Belmont Park. Prisoners of tradition and form that they are, race-goers associate a Champagne victory with a championship, and in 12 of 15 seasons before 1977, the Champagne winner was named the 2-year-old titlist. Last year, however, Calumet Farm's Alydar won the Champagne in impressive style, only to finish second to Affirmed in the voting for the best of his generation.
Alydar and Affirmed have met on six memorable occasions, with Affirmed winning four times. However, after running a total of slightly more than five miles against each other, Affirmed leads Alydar by only three feet. Each is now on a different course leading to the May 6 Kentucky Derby, with Affirmed at Santa Anita and Alydar at Hialeah, and they will not meet until Churchill Downs. Off their performances of last year, however, the 3-year-old season looks like a dandy.
Had Alydar not run again after the Champagne, he probably would have been voted the top 2-year-old. But he stayed around for two more races, the Laurel Futurity and Remsen Stakes. "We had the Laurel in our plans for Alydar all along," says trainer John Veitch. "He still needed some experience and the Laurel is a fine race to win. In the Remsen, it might have been a case of my just getting greedy. He didn't run like the real Alydar at all."
One recent morning Lazaro Sosa Barrera was standing by the rail at Santa Anita, where the persistent California rains have dampened his plans for Affirmed. While the trainer has been able to get some excellent workouts into his colt, Affirmed, who will have Steve Cauthen as his jockey, has yet to run in 1978.
"Affirmed is one of the best horses I've ever put my hands on," Barrera was saying, his hands deep inside the pockets of his navy blue parka. "That Laurel Futurity was one of the most amazing races ever run. Anywhere! Anytime! Any country! [Hands come out of pockets.] They hook up and go at each other like a couple of fighting chickens, only there is no chicken in either one of them. Before the race was run, both John Veitch and I felt that it could be a great race, but not as great as it turned out to be. [Hands form two fists and are held at arm's length.] Four horses, that's all. The third horse, Star De Naskra, is a stakes winner and the fourth horse is 40 to 1. The third horse gets a little lead for a while, and then Affirmed and Alydar take over. [Side of right fist pressed to side of left and both wiggled.] Alydar sticks a head in front [right fist advances slightly], then Affirmed [left fist goes out]. Then nobody is in front. They are running 16, 17 lengths ahead of the other two. When they hit the wire, Affirmed wins by a neck. I was happy and proud because he won, but I knew he had run up against a very tough racehorse. Alydar has been tough all along."
A month after the Laurel, Hickory Tree Stable's Believe It beat Alydar in the Remsen at Aqueduct, and those who didn't believe it had better. The two will meet again this Saturday in the first big event of the 3-year-old season, the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile $100,000 Flamingo Stakes, and the results will carry far beyond the jasmine, bougainvillea and royal palms that help make Hialeah such an elegant playground. Believe It and Alydar have had an outing this season and handled the opposition easily. Those who saw both races are hard put to say which horse they like better, but there is no doubt now that Believe It, trained by Woody Stephens and ridden by Eddie Maple, has gained a lot of fans.
Alydar, with Jorge Velasquez scheduled to ride him, will be the Flamingo favorite, but not as heavily backed as were Seattle Slew, Honest Pleasure and Foolish Pleasure in the last three runnings. The reason is simple: this crop of 3-year-olds may well turn out to be the best since 1957, when Bold Ruler, Round Table, Gallant Man, Iron Liege and Gen. Duke competed. Those horses swapped the major races leading up to the Triple Crown; after the favored Gen. Duke was injured, Iron Liege, Bold Ruler and Gallant Man each took one of the big three. "This year the 3-year-old season is going to be something special," says trainer Oscar Dishman Jr. "Anyone can knock anyone else off at any time. It looks like there will be plenty of wild scrambling before it's over."
Of the top dozen 3-year-olds, most are homebreds belonging to Establishment racing people. Thus far there doesn't seem to be any $17,500 bargain yearling around owned by young folks from White Swan, Wash. The top half-dozen of last year's 2-year-olds were weighted in close order on the Experimental list, that evaluation of both ability and potential, with Affirmed pegged at 126 pounds, Alydar at 125, Believe It 124, Forever Casting 122, Balzac and Sauce Boat 120 each. While the Experimental weights have often drawn criticism, it has been hard to fault the top choices during the 1970s, with Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure and Seattle Slew all winning the Kentucky Derby, and Honest Pleasure the betting favorite at post time in 1976, when he lost to Bold Forbes.
A Derby is always more interesting when horses arrive with reputations won on tracks in different sections of the country. Swaps vs. Nashua was the perfect example of that, and Tomy Lee vs. Sword Dancer, Silky Sullivan vs. Tim Tarn and Majestic Prince vs. Arts and Letters were fascinating matchups, too. This year the good runners are spread out in a fashion guaranteed to make their development intriguing to watch. Balzac, a lightly raced son of Buckpasser trained by California's top money-winning conditioner, Charlie Whittingham, is on the Coast along with Affirmed. Balzac, too, has been unable to race so far this winter, but Whittingham says that he "is one of the very best young horses I have ever been associated with," and Whittingham never goes overboard on horses he trains. Forever Casting, who won seven of 16 starts last year, is wintering at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
Alydar is the type of horse sure to stir interest, both because he runs from behind and also because he is owned by Calumet Farm. That stable hasn't won a Kentucky Derby since 1968, when Forward Pass was held to be the winner after Dancer's Image was disqualified, but still has won a record eight Derbies. Alydar also is trained by 32-year-old John Veitch, whose father, Syl, was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame last year. In the 1940s and 1950s Calumet won with the same consistency that the Yankees and Canadiens did. During the 1960s and '70s, however, Calumet fell on fallow times (in one year its winnings dipped below $90,000), but it has bounced back with the fine 4-year-old filly Our Mims and Alydar.
"Alydar has a strange running style," Veitch says. "He throws his head to the right through the stretch. So far we haven't been able to figure out why he does it, but maybe he's looking around for horses to come up and challenge him. In his one race before the Flamingo he did it again, but he won just about as he pleased and did everything that was expected of him. He is bred [Raise a Native-Sweet Tooth by On-and-On] to run all day, and as the distances stretch out he should improve."
Calumet's owners, Admiral and Mrs. Gene Markey—he's 82, she's 81—are both in wheelchairs and have never seen either Our Mims or Alydar race. Veitch sends video tapes of the races to the Markeys. "But they have been out to the barn in the mornings to look at them," Veitch says. "When I was a youngster growing up on the racetrack, I remember Calumet Farm very well. At the time my father was training for C. V. Whitney and he had the second-strongest stable in the country through many of Calumet's best years. I'd sit in the Whitney cottage at Belmont Park and watch Ben Jones ride out to the track on his pony. He'd have all those outstanding horses in training and they would go out to work out almost in waves. I got to look at those devil's-red and blue colors over and over again."
Two years ago the Markeys hired Veitch as their trainer. He had a small public stable at the time, and when he was asked to look over the Calumet stock he thought he was being "scouted" for the job but didn't really expect to get it. "Everyone would like to train for Calumet," he says. "It's got that excellent tradition behind it, and the Markeys care very deeply."
Calumet is most renowned for winning at Churchill Downs, but it has a storied past at Hialeah, too. And Veitch knows that this year the competition is going to be both keen and deep. The road to Churchill Downs may be a long, difficult one, but it should be an awful lot of fun.