Monday, June 10, 2013

A Test to the Wire

Thirty–five years ago today, thoroughbred racing witnessed the crowning of its most recent Triple Crown winner.

At the time, it seemed embarrassingly routine. Between 1973 and 1978, there were three Triple Crown winners. There have been none since.

Some folks think 1978 will be the last time a horse ever wins the Triple Crown. Maybe it will be. I hope not. I'd like to see another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime.

When this year's edition of the Belmont was run a couple of days ago, I already knew there would be no Triple Crown winner in 2013. But no one knew if there would be a Triple Crown winner when this day dawned in 1978. Everyone knew it was possible, but everyone also knew that the winner of the first two races, Affirmed, would have to hold off his top challenger in those races, Alydar.

And that was something Affirmed had barely been able to do in the two speed races of the Triple Crown. The question on this day was whether he could do it in the distance race, the Belmont Stakes.

The Affirmed–Alydar rivalry actually went back farther than the 1978 Triple Crown. They were old foes. The previous year, as 2–year–olds, they faced each other frequently. They were probably horse racing's answer to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier or Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, two other prominent rivalries of the '70s.

Affirmed surged to an early lead and clung to the lead throughout the race, but along the backstretch, Alydar pulled nearly even, and the two shared the lead for the rest of the Belmont. For awhile as the horses ran down the stretch, Alydar had the lead; briefly, it appeared there would be no Triple Crown winner in 1978.

As befits a great rivalry, though, the battle of the Belmont wasn't decided until the very end, as legendary race announcer Chic Anderson said. Anderson (who made a memorable call when Secretariat won the Belmont by an incredible 30 lengths five years before) observed that Affirmed and Alydar were running neck and neck down the stretch. "We'll test these two to the wire!" he exclaimed.

And so they did. Affirmed barely won the race — and the Triple Crown. Riding Affirmed to that Triple Crown was 18–year–old Steve Cauthen, the youngest jockey ever to sweep the Triple Crown races.

As no horse has won the Triple Crown since that day, it follows that Cauthen's record has been unchallenged in the last 35 years. Will that record ever be broken?

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