The 104th Kentucky Derby had been over for two hours and Trainer Laz Barrera was seated in the director's room at Churchill Downs. All sorts of folks were moving about, carrying roses and glasses of champagne. Barrera leaned forward in his chair and clasped his hands.
"People say that Steve Cauthen is 18 years old," he began. "For a while I believed things like that. But the more I watch him ride the more I start to think other things. He must be at least 100 years old, and maybe he don't come from Walton, Kentucky at all. One night when all the racing world was sleeping, a small flying saucer landed out in the desert somewhere and he got off it. He came to the United States from wherever it was with the coolness of Georgie Woolf, the old iceman. And the talent of the master, Eddie Arcaro. And there was some Shoemaker, too.
"Stevie stands by the spaceship and waits three minutes. Horses come from everywhere toward the spaceship. They come out of California and Chicago and New York, and they line up and say, 'Stevie, come be my jockey.' Stevie doesn't say anything for a few minutes, then waves his hand for silence. 'Horses,' he says, 'I will get to you all eventually. Be patient. I am looking for a special horse, one that can win the Kentucky Derby. You there, big chestnut horse, what is your name?' This horse says, 'Affirmed,' and Stevie says, 'Affirmed, I choose you to be my first Derby winner. We will win in 1978 before a huge crowd and I will put up a ride that people will talk about for years to come.' And, of course, Stevie do it."
Cauthen, Affirmed and Barrera won the Kentucky Derby last Saturday by 1½ lengths over Alydar, in a race difficult to assess. For a good while, at least until the Preakness is run at Pimlico, racing fans are going to argue over what happened at Churchill Downs. Four days before the race, Louis Wolfson, who owns Affirmed with his wife Patrice, had stood on the Churchill Downs backstretch and made a prediction: "If Affirmed is in front at the top of the stretch," Wolfson said, "you can put your binoculars down because Alydar won't catch him. I realize that sounds presumptuous, but that's the way I analyze the race. We have examined the six meetings between Affirmed and Alydar pretty carefully, and it looks to me like Affirmed digs in when things get toughest. Up to this point in his career, Affirmed has done everything asked of him, but I couldn't call him a great horse yet because the Kentucky Derby hasn't been run. Because Affirmed and Alydar haven't met since last fall, and each has won all its starts this year, people are very decided in their opinions. Well, here's mine. The critical point will come when the horses turn for home, and I think that you will see Affirmed leading at that stage. If so, I have to believe that he will win. But he's running against an excellent field."
For the most part, the field of 11 was excellent, with the winners of all the major prep races somehow avoiding injury and getting to Kentucky. Affirmed, Alydar, Believe It, Esops Foibles, Sensitive Prince and Dr. Valeri had accounted for the Tropical Derby, Florida Derby, Flamingo Stakes, Hollywood and Santa Anita Derbies, Wood Memorial, Fountain of Youth, Hibiscus Stakes and the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies as well as $2,001,151 in purses. Obviously, it was going to be a memorable race, but the tone of it had truly been set last year in the remarkable series of meetings between Affirmed and Alydar in which Affirmed won four of six times. Nevertheless, the bettors made Alydar the 6-to-5 favorite.
"This is no pickin' chicken party," Barrera said before the race. "Believe It should run good and I think that Darby Creek Road might be underrated. Sensitive Prince has won all six of his starts, and because Allen Jerkens trains him the horse must be respected. But I think Affirmed has to beat Alydar, and it could be just as simple as that.
"In any race, luck influences the outcome," Barrera went on, "but Affirmed and Alydar have always dominated their races and left the other horses far behind. A lot of people don't believe that Affirmed can be rated, but they are wrong about that. Affirmed can be rated and will be. Once you get to Kentucky, you have to listen to so much nonsense that your head gets full of bees. All I hear in Kentucky is that Affirmed cannot win the Derby because he was bred in Florida and raced in California this winter. Florida and California are part of the United States of America, aren't they? Affirmed has not been winning his races in China. Before the Derby I am going to give Affirmed a workout that will cause the bees to go bye-bye. Watch it."
Four days before the Derby, Barrera and the Wolfsons climbed into the clocker's stand. The morning was cold and Barrera's hands were dug deep into his pockets. The track was far from lightning fast, but the Exclusive Native colt made it seem so as he worked five furlongs in :59. "It's a perfect work," Barrera told the Wolfsons. "It does two things. First, it puts some speed into him to get him sharp; second, the pressure comes off because the bees will stop buzzing."
"In racing, everybody trains everybody else's horse," Barrera said later. "I train my own and let people say whatever they want. A few days ago I worked Affirmed 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles in 1:56[1/5] and people said it was a bad work. Well, it was one of the most brilliant workouts I've seen, because I started him in a place where he would have to go around a lot of turns. You can do anything with Affirmed. On the afternoons of his races, he goes to sleep in his stall when all the other horses are up and about and getting themselves on edge. Affirmed is his own main man. He knows himself and by now I think I know him. When I won the Derby with Bold Forbes two years ago, it was different. Bold Forbes came out of Puerto Rico and I didn't get him until he had raced quite a bit. With Affirmed it is different. I have him all along. I think we haven't seen how good he is yet because you only can tell when another horse challenges him—and no one has challenged him yet this year."
Alydar, too, had moved toward the Derby in perfect fashion. Last Friday morning, his trainer, John Veitch, sat on a cot in Barn 42 and examined the race. "In the draw for post position," he said, "we got No. 10. That's good. I wanted one of the four outside positions because Jorge Velasquez can pick his spot wherever he wants to be and keep Alydar free from trouble. Sensitive Prince drew the outside and that makes me feel that he will have to go to the front. Affirmed drew Post Two, and that would indicate that he must run hard early and commit himself. If Raymond Earl on the rail rushes for the lead—and he has to—then Affirmed might have to run a very fast three-quarters of a mile. I don't think that Barrera likes the No. 2 post for his horse."
When Barrera was asked about that, he smiled. "The Hollywood Derby," he said. "Look at the Hollywood Derby. That was my horse's last race. It was run at Hollywood Park and that's in China. Who broke from No. 2? Affirmed."
Once the starting gate opened in the Kentucky Derby, it was Alydar who was in trouble. He didn't seem to be able to get hold of the track. Raymond Earl scooted to the front, but Sensitive Prince went past him and after a half-mile led by 1½ lengths, with Affirmed in third place some six lengths back. Alydar was 17 lengths behind the leaders. After taking the early lead, Sensitive Prince never relaxed and seemed to be fighting Jockey Mickey Solomone most of the way. "I would have been content to lay third past the stands the first time," Solomone said later, "but he sure wasn't about to do that."
Cauthen kept Affirmed in third place until the mile, then ran head-and-head with the challenging Believe It for a few strides on the last turn before bolting into a two-length lead at the top of the stretch.
Alydar, meanwhile, was beginning his late charge. Running on the outside down the stretch, he swerved in on Believe It and actually bumped him momentarily inside the 16th pole. But Affirmed, who went the last quarter in :25⅖ was holding strongly to his lead and Alydar, though gaining, was never really close to catching him. Cauthen went to the whip six times, the first whack coming inside the three-sixteenths pole, while Velasquez was hitting Alydar a dozen times down the stretch. The Calumet colt finished 1¼ lengths in front of Believe It. Darby Creek Road was fourth, Esops Foibles fifth and Sensitive Prince sixth. Affirmed's time of 2:01[1/5] lied him with Lucky Debonair (1965) for the fifth-fastest time in Derby history. Secretariat set the record of 1:59[2/5] in 1973.
The crowd of 131,004, third largest to see a Derby, seemed baffled by Alydar's dawdling pace in the early part of the race and his delayed effort to overtake Affirmed. But Velasquez later said simply that he felt Alydar did not like the track, and by the time his colt finally did gain some traction, his late run was doomed. Cauthen had spent a good portion of the race looking for a threat from Alydar; when the Calumet colors finally came into view, it was too late.
Veitch and Alydar's owners, Admiral and Mrs. Gene Markey, were disappointed but not distraught over Alydar's loss. "He ran a good race," Veitch said, "but he just got beat. Nobody likes to lose, but people take things differently. I think you have to take victory well and not get yourself all screwed up when you lose; a trainer is going to lose a lot more races than he wins. Affirmed was the best horse in the Derby. Whether he will be in the Preakness [1[3/16] miles] and Belmont [1½ miles] nobody knows. We'll have to wait and see. But Alydar will try Affirmed again in both races."
As a trainer, Barrera proved again he has a way with a horse that few others possess. He was asked after the Derby if Affirmed's victory wasn't his finest piece of work, because he had lost countless days of training this winter in California on account of the persistent rain. "Some days I was going crazy," Barrera admitted. "I didn't think I was going to have time to get Affirmed ready in time for the Triple Crown races. I still don't know how things got worked out.
"But my best training job was with a $6,000 claimer, Destructo, who got me to America in 1959. I was born next to Oriental Park in Cuba and have been on the racetrack all my life. I went to Mexico to train horses and was second in North America to Willie Molter one year, even though in Mexico we only raced three days a week. When I decided to come to California there was only Destructo. I did well with him, but lost him in a claim. I had to start all over but the days were always good."
Barrera won the Eclipse Award as the nation's leading trainer in 1976 and again in 1977, when his horses earned $2.7 million. This year he has been even more spectacular, running nearly $1 million ahead of his 1977 pace. Horses now under his care have been estimated to be worth nearly $40 million. "I think that the Preakness should be a fine race for Affirmed," Barrera said, "but anybody who thinks he can't run a distance is crazy. This horse can run five miles, he is no stopper. He has now beaten Alydar five of seven races and in a lot of ways. Alydar can run early and we beat him. Alydar can run from the middle and we beat him. Alydar can run late and we beat him. We can beat him with boxing gloves."
Early Sunday morning, Lou Rondinello, the trainer of Darby Creek Road, summed up the Derby as he had seen it. "I'd say that the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar is still on," he said. "Alydar had a legitimate excuse in the fact that Velasquez said his colt couldn't get hold of the track. But Alydar was closing with a rush. While my horse ran a good race to be fourth, he was still beaten seven lengths. You have to come to the realization that, for now, Darby Creek Road is a cut below the top two and I don't think he will go in the Preakness. You can bet that people will be saying that a come-from-behind horse like Alydar can't win the Preakness because the distance is shorter. Nonsense. Little Current won it for me in 1974 by coming from 11th place to win going away by seven lengths."
That same morning, wearing a parka to ward off the chill and rain, Jerkens was also reflecting on the race. "I don't know why Sensitive Prince ran so poorly," he said. "God, he was beaten by 14 lengths. Maybe I made some kind of a mistake that I'm not aware of yet, but I don't think Sensitive Prince fooled me. I know he is a good horse. The Preakness? Not until I find out what went wrong in the Derby. It could be best to stop on him now and then come back later on. This Derby was a complete mystery to me." Jerkens kicked the cement wall in front of his horse's stall. "We certainly wasted an awful lot of time by coming to Kentucky," he said.
Veitch, too, was out at the Downs early. "I talked to Admiral and Mrs. Markey after the race," he said. "The Admiral said, 'John, don't worry about a thing. He just got himself too far out of it and couldn't make it up.' I know myself that the next time we can't be any place as far back as we were in the Derby. I knew going down the backstretch that we were in serious trouble, but I thought we were moving good through the stretch."
They said before the race that it would be a good one, and it was. Well, one down and two to go. The battle between Affirmed and Alydar is far from over.