Affirmed's two-length victory in the San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita last Saturday was bewildering at best. The 1977 2-year-old champion had not run very fast, had nearly caused a pileup on the first turn and had endured the sting of jockey Steve Cauthen's whip 10 times during the final quarter-mile while beating five other runners who probably will be nowhere near Louisville on Kentucky Derby Day.
But wait. Affirmed never wins big. He just wins. After 11 starts, the worst thing that can be said of him is that he finished second twice. His San Felipe victory was the seventh in his last eight races, and few horses accomplish such things in high company. All Affirmed did in the San Felipe was send a gentle challenge to Calumet Farm's Alydar, an impressive winner in the Flamingo Stakes on March 4.
Two hours after the San Felipe, on a marvelous California evening with the temperature in the low 70s, Affirmed was standing outside Barn 87 in the Santa Anita stable area. He was docile and looking up at the stars. Big-time spenders, social pretenders, grooms, hot-walkers, trainers and exercise riders gazed at Affirmed as the colt finished cooling out. A light from the barn reflected off his magnificent chestnut coat, but the onlookers still were confused by his San Felipe performance.
Affirmed had run a race that would confuse anyone. He had jumped out of the gate alertly, with only Tampoy swift enough to run with him. But on the first turn, Affirmed was bothered by a shadow and went wide, losing ground and carrying two horses into the middle of the track. Once past the shadow, he settled down, but by then both Tampoy and Chance Dancer were in front of him. Chance Dancer, who had won the San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 8, stretched out to nearly a two-length lead down the backstretch before Affirmed joined him near the top of the stretch. Chance Dancer was on the inside. Affirmed on the outside, and gradually Affirmed poked his handsome head into the lead. With a sixteenth of a mile to go, he drew off to win by two lengths. Tampoy faded to third. Affirmed's time was a moderate 1:42⅗ equal to that of Crystal Water and Smasher in 1976 and 1977.
Before the race, Trainer Laz Barrera felt that his colt might be beaten. "He's a short horse," he said as he stood by the rail watching Affirmed's morning workout. "He could get beat today if somebody else becomes a tiger. I'm worried just a little bit. The San Felipe is just a small stroll in the sunshine. I'm looking down the road toward the Kentucky Derby. That is what matters. We're going to have to fight Alydar again like we did all last year. My horse, he will no meet Alydar before the Derby. But that day we put on the heavy gloves. It will be him and us. Today we just lace the gloves up and spar. Later on Affirmed will be ready to say 'Grrrr!' "
After the race, Barrera stood by his barn and looked out into the night. "Bring him in," he told the groom, "but stop him here under this big light. He's bright as a shined copper penny," Barrera continued, "but when you look at him you see spun gold. He is a magnificent horse. Smart, real smart. In the afternoon before he run in the race, he lies down in his stall and sleeps. Only I walk around like a crazy man. Everyone asks, 'How is the horse?' I say he is good. Nobody ask how is the man, me? I'm slowly going crazy with worry. I don't want him to lose. Every morning when I come into this barn I look over all the stakes horses I have. Of 40 horses, there are 15 stakes winners in this barn. Who else have that? Nobody. But each morning I go to Stall 9 and I look in on the spun gold first. I say, 'You look good, Mr. Gold.' He don't say nothin'. He just look back and laugh at me. He knows he is the gold."
Two years ago Barrera took two-thirds of the Triple Crown with Bold Forbes, winning both the Derby and the Belmont Stakes. It was a masterly job with a horse that looked for all the world like a sprinter. Barrera kept stretching Bold Forbes out with long gallops and eventually got the horse to stay the classic distance.
"Bold Forbes and Affirmed are totally different," Barrera says. "Affirmed likes me; Bold Forbes once bit a big hole in my chest. Affirmed is a smart racehorse. You can do anything with him. If a band would come around the barn, he would dance for it. Any dance."
Affirmed, owned by Louis Wolfson's Harbor View Farm, is the horse that Cauthen has chosen to ride in the Kentucky Derby and it will mark his first appearance in the race dearest to his heart. Last year Cauthen was without a mount in the Triple Crown races. This winter, however, he went to California to baby-sit Affirmed, and two weeks ago got himself involved in what might turn out to be a landmark case in American racing.
Cauthen was riding a horse named Upper Edge in a six-furlong sprint in which he ended up fifth. But the stewards suspended Cauthen for five racing days commencing March 15 for "not making the proper effort to keep his mount straight, causing interference shortly after the start." Cauthen took the stewards to court to have the suspension stayed, because he felt their decision was unfair. The suspension also would have kept him off Affirmed in the San Felipe. Superior Court Judge Arnold Miller stayed the suspension pending a full hearing March 29. Should the stewards' decision be upheld, Cauthen could wind up missing the Santa Anita Derby on April 2, Affirmed's next-to-last start leading up to the Derby. (Affirmed will skip the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and run in a prep race in Kentucky before his meeting with Alydar in the Derby.)
"This horse knows exactly what he's doing," Cauthen said, speaking of Affirmed after the San Felipe. "I knew I could take the lead at any point, but was afraid that Balzac [who ran a dull fourth] might make a late run. Affirmed took the lead at the top of the stretch and began to move out, but when he got to the front he just pricked his ears and began to pull up. When Chance Dancer came back at us again, Affirmed just took off again, but I did have to keep after him. I didn't lose one ounce of my confidence in Affirmed by his race. He has been my Derby horse all along and he remains so. The Derby has been my big dream. Now I find myself really getting excited about it. It's going to be coming up soon."
And so is Alydar.