In those final stirring yards of the Preakness Stakes on May 16, as Alysheba burst past Bet Twice to win the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown by half a length, there was no escaping the palpable sense of dèjà vu.
There was Alysheba, the victor in the Kentucky Derby, driving to the wire with Bet Twice a close second, just as he had been in the Kentucky Derby. Nine years earlier, Alysheba's sire, Alydar, had suffered precisely the same fate as Bet Twice. Two weeks after finishing second to Affirmed in the '78 Derby, Alydar had failed by a neck to run him down in the Preakness. This Saturday, when Alysheba and Bet Twice have at each other again in the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown victory that barely eluded the father will be the son's to take.
Not that these four horses, by the way, should in any way be equated. Alysheba and Bet Twice are competent enough as racehorses, but Affirmed and Alydar are among the most talented horses ever to grace the American turf. Born most any other year, Alydar would have won the Triple Crown. Instead he will go down as perhaps the greatest also-ran in history, the only horse ever to finish second in all three legs of the Triple Crown.
Alydar and Affirmed turned 12 this year, and they are aging as gracefully as they once ran and doing it together these days, at Calumet Farm in Lexington, Ky., the Bluegrass State's most famous thoroughbred nursery. Even in the distance, the shape of Alydar's head and the color of that coat, a lustrously rich, dark chestnut, remain unmistakable. J.T. Lundy, the president of Calumet, drapes his arms over a board of the white fence and motions to the horse nibbling grass about 75 yards away. Alydar stands in the valley of his three-acre paddock. He was nearer the main highway until a few years ago, when Lundy received a death threat on the horses at Calumet. The note said, "If you don't pay us $500,000, we're going to start shooting your horses." The FBI arrested two suspects in the case, but Lundy remains understandably concerned about his horses, especially his most prized possession.
"He hangs around under that tree most of the time," Lundy says. "A beautiful horse. I really was disappointed that he didn't go on in those three Triple Crown races and beat Affirmed, but he was doing all he could. He showed a lot of heart. And you have to give Affirmed credit—he was such a good horse that Alydar just couldn't beat him, just couldn't get by the son of a gun."
And just where is that old son of a gun?
"Affirmed's right over there," says Lundy. As Alydar strolls closer, Lundy takes off, walking briskly to another paddock just 100 feet away. Affirmed appears suddenly, then stops and poses like a statue in the bright Kentucky sun, with that familiar white stripe running down his face and that burnished chestnut coat—a shade lighter and shinier, like a new penny to Alydar's old.
"Affirmed's got as good a balance as I ever saw on a horse," Lundy says. "Nothing stands out as being out of proportion. Look at his legs. Both these horses ran all those races and their legs aren't all beat up and broke up. Affirmed here is a very good breeder, not a problem horse at all, but he does have one quirk. When he's in the paddock, and a bird gets in there, he'll go after that bird with his mouth and try to catch it, running after it."
Affirmed comes over and visits politely at the fence. Moments later, as Alydar finally reaches the corner of his paddock, he stops and looks in Affirmed's direction, his head up and his ears pricked, and for an instant they are seen together once again, frozen in space and time.
Almost nine years ago—at 5:45 p.m. on June 10, 1978—the two 3-year-old colts turned for home at Belmont and began charging through the upper stretch together, their necks stretched and their legs pounding. In the late afternoon shadows, running almost as if harnessed to the same chariot, they seemed like two heroic figures in some ancient myth.
Affirmed and Steve Cauthen were on the inside and Alydar and Jorge Velasquez were on the outside and the 65,417 spectators were caught up in the duel between them. All at once, as the two colts bounded for the eighth pole, Alydar surged forward and snatched the lead from Affirmed. They were locked in one of the most dramatic, desperate stretch battles of all time. Never had the American turf witnessed such a sustained rivalry as that between Alydar and Affirmed, and the Belmont was the consummate moment in it.
They raced against each other six times as 2-year-olds in 1977, and in all but one of those meetings they finished one-two, with Affirmed winning four times and Alydar twice. In 1978 they renewed hostilities in the Kentucky Derby; Affirmed won when Alydar's late surge fell a length and a half short. And two weeks later, at the end of a furious stretch duel in the Preakness, Affirmed beat Alydar by a short neck. That led to the 110th Belmont Stakes, with Affirmed racing to become the 11th Triple Crown winner in history.
As much as everyone expected a climactic struggle, no one dared dream that it would turn out as it did. After Affirmed galloped off to an easy lead in the first half mile, running it in a casual 50 seconds flat, Velasquez swung Alydar wide and took out after him. They joined battle at the seven-eighths pole, about 1,500 yards from the wire, and the two never stopped running as one.
They raced at a swift pace, speeding the fourth quarter mile in :23[2/5]. All through the final bend, Alydar gained. No sooner had he grabbed that lead 300 yards from the wire than Affirmed snatched it back, and the two fought on. In the end, Affirmed had a head in front, and one photo of the finish actually showed Affirmed looking back at Alydar, the white of his right eye forward and the eye rolled back, like Moby Dick staring at Ahab lashed to his back.
Except for one brief anticlimax in the Travers Stakes, in which Alydar beat Affirmed on a disqualification, they never met again. By the time the colts were retired at age four, all the racing laurels crowned the brow of Affirmed: 2-year-old of the year in 1977, Horse of the Year and 3-year-old champion in 1978, and Horse of the Year and champion older horse in 1979.
Alydar did not leave the racetrack to such trumpets. Injured near the end of his 3-year-old season, he was never the same horse again, though his last moment of glory was touchingly prophetic. In the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ mile Nassau County Handicap of 1979, run after a summer rainstorm, Alydar appeared on the track beneath a giant rainbow that crested the Belmont oval. He won by 3¾ lengths, and someone dubbed it Alydar's Rainbow. If there ever was to be a pot of gold for Alydar, he would have to find it at the stud.
Affirmed took up residence in 1979 at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Alydar the same year at Calumet, and the wistfully romantic hope was that the sons and daughters of these two stallions would one day engage in the kind of spirited struggles that had defined their fathers' careers together.
That was not to be. In fact, in a classic bit of irony, it is Alydar, and not Affirmed, who has emerged in the last few years as one of the dominant sires in America, a young giant whose sons and daughters have done so well that today it costs as much as $350,000 for a breeder to send a mare to Alydar, the money paid with no guarantee in many cases that she will even conceive. Alysheba is, of course, Alydar's latest son to shine. And on Saturday at Belmont, a son of Alydar may become the 12th Triple Crown winner—the first, irony of ironies, since Affirmed.
Unlike his rival, Alydar stamped his progeny from his first crop of foals, announcing immediately that he would be a force at the stud. Among his daughters of 1981 were Althea, voted the 2-year-old filly champion in 1983 and ultimately the winner of $1,275,255 at the track, and Miss Oceana, the winner of six major stakes before she retired with earnings of $1,010,385. But certainly the best of his offspring, in sheer ability, was the brilliant Turkoman, the winner of $2,146,924 and America's champion older horse in 1986. In Principal American Racehorses of 1986, their definitive study of last year's leading thoroughbreds, authors Andrew Beyer and Bill Oppenheim concluded, "At classic distances, Turkoman was the best American racehorse of 1986."
Affirmed has not sired a horse even remotely approaching Turkoman or Althea or Alysheba in ability, and his stud fee stands at $50,000, often with no guarantee. So far, his progeny have won $4,165,814. He has sired some very useful horses, for example An Empress and Persevered, but he has yet to father the winner of a Grade 1 stakes in America. Alydar's offspring, on the other hand, have earned close to $12 million.
That Alydar finally found the end of his rainbow at the stud, where Affirmed has not, is no doubt a matter of genetics. Alydar is a son of Raise a Native, himself a son of the great Native Dancer and one of the most prepotent American stallions of all time. And Alydar's dam, Sweet Tooth, descends from one of the finest female families ever produced at historic Calumet, a line from which numerous major stakes winners have come, including the notable fillies Our Mims and Sugar and Spice.
"The Calumet family that Alydar came from is a magnificent female family," says John Williams, the former general manager at Spendthrift Farm. "And his sire, Raise a Native, is one of the most influential sires of this century, through his sons and daughters."
Affirmed is a grandson of Raise a Native—his sire, Exclusive Native, is a son of Raise a Native—and thus his apples fall farther from the big tree. Moreover, Affirmed's dam, Won't Tell You, comes from a much thinner bloodline than Sweet Tooth's. All of which explains, at least in breeding theory, why Alydar has so far done much better at the stud than Affirmed. On the racetrack, of course, there wasn't more than a wink and a nod separating them in the first place. So, having gone to the stud with virtually equal ability, they were ultimately separated in the breeding shed by the arcane mandates of pedigree.
All that aside, the most compelling ending for these two horses was written last fall when Affirmed's principal owner, Louis Wolfson, agreed to transfer Affirmed from the financially crumbling empire of Spendthrift Farm to Calumet. A year earlier, with the upheavals at Spendthrift growing more ominous by the week—the great Seattle Slew left Spendthrift on Sept. 6, 1985—Lundy had approached Donald Wolfson, Louis's nephew, and told him, "If there is ever any interest in moving Affirmed, there will always be a stall for him at Calumet Farm."
At the time, Louis Wolfson hesitated—he still felt bound by a commitment to Leslie Combs, the chairman of the board at Spendthrift—but he did muse aloud to Donald, "It really would be something to see those two horses side by side again." Last fall, following Combs's departure from Spendthrift and with the farm in such turmoil that he could no longer hesitate, Louis Wolfson made the move. Affirmed was vanned to Calumet on Oct. 10.
Donald Wolfson had urged his uncle to move Affirmed in part because the names of the two horses were so inextricably bound on the racetrack, their rivalry so much a part of history. "I thought it really would be interesting to see these horses back together," Donald said. "I'm a romantic."
Lundy saw it more as a business opportunity to draw attention to the horses and the farm. "It has such commercial value," Lundy says. "Everybody still remembers those races. It has value for both of the horses and all the people involved with them. It's a great novelty."
And so the two old competitors are back together again. They see quite a lot of each other these days—in the fields, when they are turned out and when they are led to and from the breeding shed—and they have adjoining stalls in the stallion barn. The walls between them are concrete, trimmed with oak, and they can't see each other, but by day they can hear each other drink and eat, and by night they can hear each other snore. They are, otherwise, and always, kept far apart. "They'd kill each other if they could get at each other," Lundy says. "Stallions don't like other stallions."
As unsociable as they may feel toward each other, they both spend a lot of time in their separate fields looking at the mares grazing in the nearby pastures and waiting for the vans to bring in the broodmares from surrounding farms for servicing. Affirmed, particularly, gets to nickering when the vans ship in the new recruits. "It's like a singles bar, and he's like a guy checking out the girls," says Greg Clarke, Affirmed's groom.
Alydar breeds to classier mares than Affirmed—he is now, after all, one of America's premier stallions—but Lundy is certain that Affirmed will one day make his mark with one of his foals. "Affirmed is subject, any minute, to come up with a big-time horse," Lundy says. "It's a pleasure to have him."
Actually it's a pleasure to have them both. Neither of the horses has been much of a problem, though Alydar has a nasty streak that has Lundy stepping gingerly around him. "I swear that horse doesn't like me," Lundy complains. "He bit me one day and, I mean, left teeth marks. Every time he gets near me, he bites me."
Alydar was not like that in his racing days. His trainer, John Veitch, says the colt was a friendly youngster—intelligent, well behaved, good in company. There was something rugged and earthy about him, and that and his determined nature, despite narrow failures, made him the more popular of the two horses among racing fans. Affirmed ran with the precision of a timepiece and seemed much more the businessman out there. Alydar wore the hard hat, Affirmed the fedora.
Today, of the two, Alydar is generally the more aloof and difficult of the pair, and Affirmed the more tractable and sociable.
"Alydar will do things to please himself," says Paul Pryor, his groom. "He don't care. Affirmed can also be moody, but I think he tries harder to please people, though he can be a pain, too. Alydar is like a free spirit; Affirmed may be more conservative."
There was nothing conservative or subdued in the celebrations that began in Lexington moments after Alysheba won this year's Kentucky Derby. At Calumet, Lundy and two visitors peeled over to the stallion barn to congratulate Alydar. Meanwhile, down the road at Hamburg Place, where Preston Madden had bred and raised Alysheba, the big bell atop the water tower was tolling loudly across the land, just as it had tolled for the five Derby winners bred by Preston's grandfather, the legendary John E. Madden, in the first quarter of this century.
If Alysheba can finish avenging his father's Triple Crown defeats in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the bells will be ringing again in Lexington.
WINNINGS OF THEIR TOP 10 FOALS
An Empress ('83)
Miss Oceana ('81)
Claude Monet ('81)
I'm Sweets ('83)
Regal State ('83)
Red Attack ('82)
Cap Badgett ('81)
Saratoga Six ('82)
One From Heaven ('84)
Buckley Boy ('82)
An Affirmation ('83)
Source:The Thoroughbred Record