In his stall in Barn 47 at Belmont Park, the colt with the distinctive splash of white down his face stood in the doorway, his ears playing to the sounds and movements of the men around him. Outside it was dark. A light on the ceiling burned. For a moment Affirmed's ears stopped moving, and he seemed like a statue of himself.
It was 7:30 p.m. last Saturday, a late hour for so much activity around the barns, but Affirmed had worked late that afternoon and there were things still to be done. He watched the activity about him with evident curiosity. Groom Juan Alaniz was in and out of the stall, preparing to fit Affirmed with a set of splashy orange protective bandages, while Dr. James Belden, his veterinarian, studied the colt from the aisle of the shed. A Pinkerton guarded the door of the barn. Larry Barrera, the son of Affirmed's trainer, Laz Barrera, slipped in and out of a nearby office. He was wearing a pink golf shirt with an inscription on the back: I SAW AFFIRMED WIN THE GOLD CUP. The shirt celebrated Affirmed's victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup last June, and now was back in fashion.
Two hours earlier, in one of the most resourceful and revealing performances of his career, Affirmed had beaten back every challenge thrown at him to win the $375,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at a mile and a half. It had been, even by his formidable standards, a superb victory, one that underscored all those qualities for which Affirmed is most admired and for which he will be prized as a stud horse next spring. Brownell Combs knows that more clearly than anyone. The hefty Kentucky breeder stepped through the door of the shed and walked up the aisle. Combs is the general manager of Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky., which will be Affirmed's home and place of business when he retires on Dec. 1. Last January, when the colt was in the midst of a four-race losing streak, Combs had syndicated Affirmed for $14.4 million—36 shares, at $400,000 apiece. Twenty-one shares were sold; owner Louis Wolfson retained the remaining 15. Spendthrift will get four free breeding services a year to manage the syndicate and care for the horse.
Aside from Wolfson himself, no one profited more from the Gold Cup than Combs. "The value of this horse keeps going up all the time," he said. "There have been several offers of $650,000 to buy a share, but no one has been willing to sell. I suppose that if a person really wanted to sell a share in this horse now, he could get $1 million. If you were syndicating him now, after the way he ran today, you'd be looking at a $25 million to $30 million horse."
October 14, 1979
After spending the first two years of his career outgaming Alydar in a series of classic matchups that culminated in his victory in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, Affirmed hooked a buzz saw in Seattle Slew, losing to him in the 1978 Marlboro Cup. He then lost three more in a row, but he regained his preeminence early this year and went on to demonstrate unequivocally that he is the best racehorse in America. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he showed himself to be one of the gamest, most consistent and capable runners in the history of modern racing. If the Gold Cup was billed somewhat preposterously as the "Race of the Century," it undoubtedly stirred as much interest as any such event in recent years. For the race matched the 4-year-old Affirmed and the best 3-year-old in training, Spectacular Bid, with the '79 Belmont Stakes winner, Coastal, in the role of spoiler.
Affirmed and Bid had been on converging courses since last February, when Affirmed ended his losing streak with a stunning 10-length victory in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita.
Affirmed appeared to be a different racehorse at four than he was at three. He was stronger and more commanding than ever, and he drew away from Sirlad in the Hollywood Gold Cup to become the first horse to win more than $2 million in purses. That done, Barrera rested him the remainder of the summer.
Even as Affirmed grew in stature, so did Bid. He seemed indomitable in the winter and the spring, going unbeaten through the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The morning of the Belmont, the day he went for the Triple Crown, Bid stepped on a safety pin in his stall. And that afternoon, whether sore from the pin or tired from chasing cheap speed around the first turn, he tired in the stretch to finish third. Trainer Bud Delp backed off him. Like Barrera with Affirmed, he aimed for Belmont Park in the fall.
That their meeting was twice postponed only heightened the expectations for it. They were heading for a confrontation in September's Marlboro Cup when Barrera angrily declined the Marlboro invitation in protest of the weight assignments. Spectacular Bid won that race by five in a smashing performance. He was training for the Sept. 22 Woodward and—at last—a meeting with Affirmed, when he developed a fever. So Bid passed up the Woodward. But Affirmed ran, winning with authority, by 2½ lengths.
Now it came down to the Gold Cup, the race that would finally determine the Horse of the Year. At least as intriguing as the prospect of the race itself were the contrasting styles of the main participants. Affirmed is as quick and handy as a polo pony, able to go to the front or come from behind. With less natural speed, Bid usually lays back before delivering a single irresistible burst. Bill Shoemaker, who replaced Ron Franklin on Bid after the Belmont, has the smoothest and quietest pair of hands in racing, getting what he needs from a horse through cajolery and finesse. Affirmed's rider, Laffit Pincay Jr., is the strongest rider in the country and its ablest finisher.
There was far more at stake last Saturday than honor or even the winner's share of $225,000. Affirmed's value at stud had already been established with his syndication, but Spectacular Bid's had not. In fact, his worth had plunged dramatically after the loss in the Belmont. Combs says he arrived at that race carrying in his pocket a check for $10 million—half the $20 million that Combs thought Bid would be worth if he won. He never made the down payment. After the Belmont, Combs estimates, Spectacular Bid's value was $12 million—a drop of $8 million in less than 2½ minutes. Bid's connections came to the Gold Cup hoping to recoup the loss. Seth Hancock, the head of Claiborne Farm, which will syndicate and stand the colt at stud, said before the Gold Cup that Bid would be worth $16 to $20 million if he won the race, between $12 and $15 million if he lost. Such were the stakes that Bid's owners, Harry, Teresa and Tom Meyerhoff, were playing for last Saturday.
Pincay and Barrera also were playing a numbers game. A win would push Pincay's purses this year past Darrel McHargue's single-season jockey record of $6,188,353, set in 1978. When the day ended, Pincay had earned $6,384,568. Barrera, meanwhile, broke his single-season trainers' record of $3,314,564 for purses, also set last year; he finished the day with $3,368,548. As for Affirmed, his career earnings are $2,393,818.
Barrera sensed the victory the instant the gates sprang open and Affirmed leaped forward. He was a full neck in front just two jumps out of the gate. "When he breaks like that," Laz says, "you can put the beans on the fire and you know you're gonna eat for sure."
Gallant Best, who filled out the four-horse field, raced to the front, taking the lead from the favored Affirmed going into the first turn and Pincay refused to rush his mount a step. As they made the bend, galloping through the first quarter in the buggy-horse time of 25 seconds, Affirmed ranged up and assumed the lead. Turning into the backside, through a casual opening half in 49 seconds, Shoemaker sensed the softness of the pace. He made a move, but Pincay let out a notch and Affirmed drew away. They raced down the straight that way—Affirmed in front, Bid right behind. Midway through the backstretch, Shoemaker asked Spectacular Bid again, sending him up to challenge. Once more Affirmed surged forward. He had a length lead as they came to the turn. Nearing the three-eighths pole, Shoemaker sent Bid to Affirmed's side, but Affirmed dug in a third time. For an instant, Shoemaker thought Bid had chucked the bit and given up. He started to fall back. And suddenly, on the inside, Coastal came charging through the gap. He drew even with Affirmed, perhaps getting a nose in front, but this is Affirmed's game, the part of it he seems to relish the most. Affirmed snatched the lead back as they headed into the stretch.
Suddenly Coastal excused himself, and at once Shoemaker and the Bid battled back, with Shoemaker riding frantically, coming to within half a length of Affirmed as the two horses raced past the eighth pole. Now Pincay drew his stick. With his whipping and hand-riding, Affirmed stretched out and drove for the wire. He pulled away in the final 100 yards to win by three-quarters of a length.
Four times Bid had tried to get by Affirmed, and four times had been beaten back, the final agonizing time as the two colts ran for the wire. In the box seats, the Wolfsons and Barrera embraced. "Once my horse went to the lead, I knew the party was over," Barrera said. It actually ended back at the barn, with Alaniz fitting the colt with the bandages and Doc Belden sitting on a bucket and staring into the stall and Barrera walking into the shed to say good night. "Look at him," Laz said. "It look like he don't even run. He knows he's a champion. No horse can look like that and not be a champion." Then Larry Barrera reached in and flipped off the light.