Saratoga racetrack has been in business for 115 years, and its patrons know horses. They watch them taking hesitant, green steps as 2-year-olds and then follow their development. Good horses return to Saratoga either as very talented 3-year-olds or as established 4-year-olds to run in a handicap race called the Whitney. By Saratoga's standards the Whitney, being just 51 years old, is only a pup. Its roll of winners, however, matches that of any race anywhere: Equipoise, Discovery, War Admiral, Tom Fool, Kelso, Carry Back, Gun Bow, Dr. Fager, Stymie, Ancient Title. In recent years Forego and Secretariat ran in the Whitney and lost. Through those 51 years only 10 runners have ever won the Whitney as 3-year-olds, but Alydar topped them all last Saturday.
When a 3-year-old competes in the Whitney he normally takes on light weight or else gets smothered by a more experienced horse that has been racing against older horses. Alydar carried 123 pounds in last Saturday's Whitney, meaning that on racing's scale of weights he was giving pounds away to some older horses. But that was only part of the story.
Saratoga reserves its affections for special horses. Native Dancer was one, Tom Fool another. Secretariat had 9,000 people waiting at the backstretch gate when he arrived by van from Belmont Park in his Triple Crown year of 1973, and last year when Forego appeared at the old track in upstate New York a crowd of 29,000 showed up in teeming rain just to wish him well.
People who attend the races at Saratoga are creatures of tradition. They don't need, expect or want rock bands in the paddock or giveaway programs or in-house television sets babbling away throughout the afternoon. Before every race the horses are saddled under elm trees, each tree bearing a number corresponding to the one on the mount's saddlecloth. When Alydar was led from his barn on the backstretch for the Whitney, nearly 1,500 people had already gathered in a huge circle around the tree bearing his number.
Wisely, it was decided not to saddle Alydar by the tree because the throng was growing every moment. When he paraded to the post, the largest Whitney crowd in history, 31,034, applauded him. The noise started in the grandstand, moved down the track and into the clumps of fans in the infield. Then it stopped. Suddenly. The crowd was apprehensive. Was it giving its affection away too easily? Was Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed in the Triple Crown races, just another runner-up?
The field he was facing was good, if not superior. Alydar's eight opponents had won 27 stakes races, and it is difficult for a 3-year-old to give away weight in August. Saratoga's reputation as "the graveyard of favorites" has been justly earned.
Alydar was facing four interesting opponents. J. O. Tobin, carrying 128 pounds, was the most impressive because he had won races in England, California and New York and gained a reputation as one of the quickest horses anywhere. J. O. Tobin is trained by Laz Barrera, the man who trains Affirmed. Buckaroo, the only other 3-year-old in the race, was given a chance because his recent form had been excellent and he was getting 11 pounds from Alydar. True Statement and Nearly On Time also presented fairly impressive credentials: True Statement had won major stakes at Ak-Sar-Ben in Nebraska, and Nearly On Time was the winner of the 1977 Whitney.
In the days preceding the race there was no doubt that Trainer John Veitch was nervous about Alydar giving weight to older horses. "I thought about going to Monmouth Park and running Alydar against 3-year-olds for $100,000 in the Invitational there," he said, "but I want to get a race over this track for Alydar before he faces Affirmed in the Travers [Aug. 19]. I'm aware that some people think I'm making the wrong move by running against older horses before running against Affirmed. But I believe Alydar is an excellent horse and the people at Saratoga should see him.
"Alydar has stood up throughout a long campaign. He's been running and winning since February. Even after his race with Affirmed in the Belmont he showed no bad signs. Two days after the Belmont he seemed full of himself and ready to go again. People thought he might have lost his confidence by losing the Triple Crown races, but I never thought so. Neither did he. He went out to Arlington Park and won the Classic there by 13 lengths. He drew a big crowd and the fans liked him. Alydar has won four $100,000 races this year, and how many horses do that in any year? I don't think it's silly to start him against older horses. A trainer has a responsibility to prove that his horse is good. I'm more confident and convinced about Alydar now than ever before."
Veitch's prerace instructions to Jockey Jorge Velasquez were simple: "Be careful of J. O. Tobin at the break because he sometimes does strange things. Let him get the lead, but if you can get inside him in the stretch, do it. He tends to drift wide and there might be some room there. If we have to go by him on the outside, he could force Alydar too wide. Georgie, just do what you have to do."
Alydar had drawn the outside post position and would have to leave the gate next to J. O. Tobin and Nearly On Time. When the gate opened, J. O. Tobin threw his head into the air and Nearly On Time cut in front of him. The two bumped sharply and moved over on Alydar, who already was in trouble with 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles to go.
On the first turn J. O. Tobin's rider, Jeff Fell, forced Alydar extremely wide and Buckaroo took off on the lead. After half a mile Buckaroo and Nearly On Time were fighting for the front-runner's spot with J. O. Tobin moving up on them menacingly. Alydar was back in sixth place but going about his business.
When Alydar made his move it was plain awesome. Velasquez took his mount in along the rail before the head of the stretch. Buckaroo and J. O. Tobin were leading but tiring and drifting out into the middle of the track. Alydar skimmed the rail and suddenly shot past them. Velasquez tapped Alydar once with his whip and then, approaching the wire, turned his whip down the way Errol Flynn used to put his sword back in its scabbard. The margin of victory was 10 lengths.
As Alydar went past the finish line there was a tremendous battle being fought for second place, Buckaroo winning it by a head over Father Hogan. True Statement wound up fifth and J. O. Tobin sixth. But nobody seemed to care about the scramble for second. The old wooden rafters were shaking with applause for Alydar. It was loud and strong, then quieted down and built up again until virtually everyone was standing. Veitch stood in the winner's circle and smiled.
"I heard it all," he said later, "and I was proud for Alydar. I don't know if they were saying, 'Congratulations, underdog' or what. I've heard all the things about if Alydar had come along in any other year he would have won the Triple Crown. Alydar is not in any other year. He's in this one. At the break he suffered a superficial cut behind his left front pastern, but he'll be O.K. in time for the Travers. I think Alydar is stronger now, more seasoned and he's ready. In some ways it was Alydar's best race. Maybe best winning race is a better way to say it."
Veitch walked over to Stall 17 in his barn and hollered in at his top filly, Our Mims, "Mimsie, what did you think about your little brother today? He was superb."
A few moments later Jack Gaver, the trainer of Buckaroo, was asked about the race. "I decided to run against Alydar because I didn't know if Buckaroo was good enough to go against Affirmed and Alydar in the Travers," he said. "I wanted to run against one of them, not both. Now I know what I thought I knew all along. If you can't fight one of them, how can you fight them both? That crowd said a lot today. It said, 'Alydar, you are some kind of racehorse.' It also said, 'We'll be back in two weeks to see you run against Affirmed.' Anyone who runs against the two of them has to be a little crazed. But anybody who isn't there to see it is totally crazed."
And what was Barrera's reaction? "When Alydar shipped to Chicago and won at Arlington, I was happy for him," he said. "If anyone had any doubts about Alydar before that race they shouldn't have them now. He is a great horse because he came back after his three tough losses to Affirmed. But I didn't think Alydar would be able to do what he did in the Whitney. At the top of the stretch he just went swoosh. J. O. Tobin was bothered at the start, but he's never been beaten by as far as 10 lengths before. If Alydar is this exceptional, then how good is Affirmed?"