The last time they met was six months ago in the Laurel Futurity in Maryland. The purse was big ($144,650) and the crowd fairly small (15,361). Somewhere, sometime, there might have been a better 2-year-old race, but no one has come up with it. Alydar was on the inside, Affirmed on the outside, and they fought the length of the stretch side by side, nostril to nostril, in a remarkable demonstration of speed and ability. At the finish, Affirmed won by a neck to prove he was the best of the nearly 29,000 horses foaled in 1975.
This Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs, Affirmed and Alydar will meet again in the 104th Kentucky Derby. Since they last raced, Alydar has grown and matured and this winter swept through the South without a defeat in four races. Affirmed spent his winter in California, and he, too, has grown and matured and gone undefeated, also in four races. In 13 lifetime starts. Affirmed has had only two losses, both to Alydar, while Alydar has lost five of 14 races, four of them to Affirmed. Affirmed and Alydar; Alydar and Affirmed. Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Last Thursday afternoon at Keeneland, Alydar ran a very confusing race in the Blue Grass Stakes, his last Derby prep, and he did a lot of things wrong. When the starting-gate doors flew open, Alydar stood flat-footed, and when he finally got under way, he immediately ducked inward. The Calumet colt then dawdled for most of the race. But when he finally made his one move he overtook his opponents as if they were painted on the inner rail. His time for 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles was 1:49[3/5] over a dull track. The stunning thing about the Blue Grass, however, was that Alydar won by 13 lengths.
The last time Affirmed ran was in the Hollywood Derby on April 16, and he won the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles by two lengths in 1:48⅕ also over a dull track. Make whatever you like of the times of the two races, then mix in these facts: in the Hollywood Derby, Steve Cauthen had to work hard, hitting Affirmed a dozen times with his whip in the stretch; in the Blue Grass, Jorge Velasquez tapped Alydar only four times.
On the morning of the Hollywood Derby, Affirmed's trainer, Laz Barrera, stood outside his stable office and said, "I hate the word great. Everything must be great these days. Great, great, great! If a man walks down the road with a pumpkin and you stop him and say, 'That's a good-looking pumpkin you have,' he'll get mad at you. But if you say, 'What a great pumpkin you have there,' he'll stop and talk.
"I don't think there are too many great pumpkins and there are damned few great racehorses. But let me say this: Alydar is a great racehorse. Affirmed? He is far and away the smartest horse I have ever trained. The first time I saw him, I didn't look to see how big he was or how good-looking he was. My eyes went to his eyes and I said, 'There is something about you that I do not understand. You're smart.' I wasn't wrong, either."
On the eve of the Blue Grass, John Veitch, Alydar's trainer, was asked about Affirmed. "I know he's a great racehorse," Veitch said, "even though I haven't seen him since last fall. I've read about him and know what he's done. People in the horse business might say, 'What a shame it is that Affirmed and Alydar came along in the same year because one must win and the other lose.' I won't say that because it's silly. The two are a marvelous thing for racing."
This is a bewildering Derby to figure. It's a bit like those wooden Russian dolls; you keep taking one doll away only to find another inside. Affirmed seems to like to run in front, while Alydar tends to come from behind. But Alydar does not have to come from far off the pace, as he demonstrated while winning the Florida Derby by running close to the lead. Affirmed, on the other hand, won last summer's Sanford Stakes at Saratoga by hanging back and coming on in the stretch. Cauthen will be in his first Derby, but he has ridden at Churchill Downs often. Cauthen is brilliant at putting a horse in front of the field and then nursing it home. Velasquez is a master of distance, having won more than 30 major stakes at 1¼ miles and up.
But is this Derby only a match between Alydar and Affirmed? Probably. Still, there are three other legitimate contenders. Sensitive Prince is undefeated in six starts and is trained by Allen Jerkens, who sent out horses that upset Kelso three times and twice defeated Secretariat. The Prince is a front-runner, or has been to date, and when a horse is undefeated he merits consideration.
Believe It has been a puzzle for most of the winter and spring, but the only time Alydar lost to anybody except Affirmed last year it was to Believe It. This winter. Believe It ran a temperature in Florida and his poor performance in the Flamingo probably can be attributed to that. In the Florida Derby, Believe It ran an excellent race, put on a burst of speed nearing the head of the stretch but was overtaken by Alydar. Subsequently, Believe It won the Wood at Aqueduct by utilizing the same tactics, and this time there was no Alydar to catch him.
The best of the long shots is Esops Foibles, the winner of the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies, but a surprising six-length loser to Batonnier in last Saturday's one-mile Stepping Stone at Churchill Downs, a race in which jockey Chris McCarron lost his whip at the eighth pole. In his previous races, however, Esops Foibles showed strength in the stretch and the Stepping Stone may have been too short for him. The Derby's 1¼ miles may be more to his liking.
The history of the Kentucky Derby is replete with references to trainer Ben A. Jones and Calumet Farm, particularly in years ending with the numeral 8. Jones won his first Derby in 1938 with Lawrin. In 1948 Calumet won with Citation, then won again in 1958 with Tim Tarn and in 1968 with Forward Pass. This is 1978. Alydar is owned by Calumet. Hmmm.
Two years ago Laz Barrera started his first horse in a Derby, Bold Forbes. That week, Barrera sat in his Louisville hotel room and examined the charts of the 101 Derbies and concluded that 60% of them were won by horses that were in the lead at the head of the stretch, including Bold Forbes. Will Barrera advise Cauthen to get to the lead at the head of the stretch this time and try to withstand Alydar's late drive? Probably.
Velasquez has never won a Derby in four attempts, but this time he feels certain he will. After the Blue Grass he was asked if Alydar was the best 3-year-old he had ever ridden. "What?" Velasquez said.
"Is he the best one?"
"One, two and three," Velasquez answered. "But he's not the champion yet. He's got to beat Affirmed. And that's not easy."