Years from now arguments will still be raging about what really happened on that August afternoon at Saratoga in the 1978 Travers, the oldest continuously run stakes race in the country. This much is sure: Affirmed, the Triple Crown champion, lost for the first time this year because of a foul, and Alydar, who was declared the winner, was this close to being killed. Moreover, Laffit Pincay Jr., an outstanding jockey, may be remembered longer for his controversial ride in the Travers than for his thousands of winners. And Laz Barrera, Affirmed's trainer, was so upset that he virtually accused Angel Cordero, who rode Shake Shake Shake, one of the two other horses in the race, of conspiring to interfere with Affirmed so that Alydar could win.
For two months Saratoga Springs had readied itself for the 109th Travers, where Affirmed and Alydar, one of the best animal acts in history, would be presented for the 10th time. Pincay was to be aboard Affirmed only because his regular jockey, Steve Cauthen, had been injured in a spill at Saratoga on Aug. 9, just one day after riding Affirmed to a spectacular victory by a half length over Sensitive Prince in the Jim Dandy, a prep for the Travers.
But Pincay had ridden Affirmed twice before, once at Hollywood in 1977 and at Santa Anita this spring when Cauthen was sitting out a suspension, and both times he had won. Nonetheless, it was suggested that Affirmed without Cauthen was like Silver without the Lone Ranger, and in the days leading up to the Travers, a lot of people were asking the same question: "How much will the loss of Cauthen hurt Affirmed's chances?"
Three days before the race Alydar's trainer, John Veitch, said, "I was certain that Sensitive Prince would go into the Travers after he had run so well against Affirmed in the Jim Dandy. When Allen Jerkens decided this morning not to enter Sensitive Prince, it came as quite a surprise. I figured Sensitive Prince would run with Affirmed from the start and that might allow Alydar to lay up close to both of them and then make his big run through the stretch.
"Without Sensitive Prince to help, we'll have to come up with another plan. About the only thing I can think of is to force Pincay into a tactical error, to catch him asleep someplace along the line."
The desperate battles the two horses had fought in the Triple Crown races, as well as their tough races against each other as 2-year-olds, were working on the nerves of both Veitch and Barrera.
"Won't this ever end?" Barrera asked one morning. "He always come back and fight again. The record is seven wins for Affirmed and two for Alydar. If this was boxing, he wouldn't get no more shots at the title. For a young man who is supposed to be a good trainer, Veitch certainly say some stupid things. He always say he has a new way to beat Affirmed. What new way? Seven out of nine and four losses in a row to Affirmed don't show me any new way."
Barrera looked at the past peformances of Shake Shake Shake and frowned. "He run for $16,000 claiming price in Puerto Rico in January," the trainer said, "and then he win some allowance races. It don't look to me like he belong in the Travers."
An hour before post time fans started to gather by the white-fenced paddock behind the clubhouse, standing four deep and stretching all the way out to the racetrack. The paddock itself was choked with owners, trainers, media people and assorted swells and politicians. Affirmed, magnificent in appearance, calm in demeanor, walked into the ring first and received a hand. After Affirmed, Shake Shake Shake and Nasty And Bold went into the paddock; finally Alydar entered. As he was being applauded the first flash of odds appeared on the tote board. Surprisingly, Alydar was the favorite at 1 to 2 with Affirmed 9 to 5. By post time, 30 minutes later, Affirmed was 3 to 5, Alydar was even money.
At the start, Shake Shake Shake and Cordero broke quickly from the gate but were unable to steal off to a decisive lead. Affirmed remained close, and although Alydar was taken back to last place by Velasquez, he was never far behind. It appeared that Affirmed, with his speed, could move out ahead anytime he wanted, but Shake Shake Shake stayed with him. After a couple of furlongs, Shake Shake Shake began to bear out, pushing Affirmed farther from the rail. With a half mile remaining, Affirmed was in front, but Velasquez, seeing that a slot was opening along the rail and certain that this was the fastest part of the track, steered Alydar up on the inside.
Pincay, seemingly convinced that Alydar would run at him from the outside, appeared to panic when he saw Velasquez coming on the inside. He headed Affirmed toward the rail and shut Alydar off. At that moment, Alydar was within a neck of Affirmed. As Affirmed veered in, Velasquez yanked on the reins, violently twisting Alydar's head. The jockey was nearly pitched from his horse. Alydar, upon being pulled up so abruptly, struck the rail and lost his action, dropping six lengths behind. Somehow Velasquez got him back in gear and running once more around the turn and into the stretch, closing the gap to only a length. But he could get no closer, and at the finish Affirmed was 1¾ lengths in front.
Immediately the "inquiry" light was flashed and the stewards looked at the race film. It showed Pincay's move to the rail to be so sudden as to stop Alydar cold—a flagrant foul. "I thought I was going down," Velasquez said later. "I was in a very, very bad spot. I just about lost my right iron and didn't think I'd be able to get myself straightened out."
When the two horses returned to the front of the stands, the crowd didn't know what to think. It certainly wasn't the race it had come out in record numbers to see. Affirmed was disqualified and placed second, while Alydar's number was punched up on the tote. Boos resounded. Veitch accepted congratulations and quickly left the winner's circle.
He looked at his horse as he was being led back to the stable. Alydar had a bruise on his right front leg and cuts on both front legs. Veitch was furious.
"Pincay should get 30 days on bread and water," he fumed. "I think he knew he blew the race and panicked. There is no place on a racetrack for any rider who does that. No, I'm not happy winning this way. It's hollow as hell. Do you realize that one of the best horses to come along in years was almost killed out there in front of the biggest crowd in Saratoga history?"
Pincay, naturally, was all innocence. "I did not think there was enough room for him to get through," he said. "He was going through a blind spot."
Barrera sat in his box watching the ninth race. He was livid and he intimated strongly that Cordero and Velasquez, two close friends, had conspired to get Affirmed beaten. "Alydar don't got no business to be in there on the rail if he don't know Cordero going to open inside for him," Barrera said. "My horse was head and head with Cordero's horse and all of a sudden the other horse took my horse out and delivered [the rail] to Alydar."
Cordero denied the charge. "My horse was bearing out almost all the way around," he said. "Barrera can say whatever he wants to say. All you have to do is look at the film."
"I don't plan to run no more against Alydar," Barrera said.
Veitch read an account of Barrera's remarks in the dusk by his barn as he watched Alydar being cooled out. He read it at least three times, thought and said, "That's chicken. If Alydar is O.K. he'll be in the Marlboro Cup. Who the hell is Barrera to say that Velasquez couldn't go on the inside? Does he own the race track?"
Thus the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry has taken on a new dimension. The two horses are almost certain to meet again, for both are pointing for the same races: the Marlboro Cup, Woodward Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the fall at Belmont Park.
It took an hour and a half for Velasquez to get through the traffic and back to Alydar's barn. The jockey carried a bottle of champagne with him to celebrate the victory, but it was never opened. Jorge stood in front of Alydar's stall and talked to the horse. "We're going to get him next time," he said. "It's a shame we couldn't have done it on our own. You were going to beat him. This way is the worst way for the thing, between you and Affirmed."