For the Love of Thoroughbred Horse Racing!!!

Friday, August 27, 2010

My First Travers, or … Affirmed and Alydar’s Last Tango

The year was 1978, and my family was in the midst of probably the best family vacation of my childhood. It was my first extended stay at Saratoga, and I was loving life. We stayed at the now defunct Lake Paradise Resort, which somehow managed to live up to its name for me in every way. By day, we did all the usual water activities a gorgeous little resort lake offered, and by night, my brother and I would play pool and the jukebox for as long as our parents would allow. That is, we did those things when we were not at the track. Lake Paradise was but a short trip from the Spa, and that is why we were there. What a year for racing 1978 was, and so it was for us that Summer at Saratoga. We saw fabulous horses like General Assembly and Waya dominate in prestigious stakes, but it was the Travers that would be the cornerstone of our trip. Affirmed and Alydar had been the stars of the racing world that year, and little did we know that we would be in store for their final meeting and also their most controversial.

After his Triple Crown glory, Affirmed had a little time off before prepping for the Travers in the Jim Dandy. On that day, he would require nearly every inch of the nine furlongs to catch the quality speedster Sensitive Prince only yards before the wire. Alydar meanwhile, picked up where he left off before his three heartbreaking losses to his Triple Crown rival. He traveled to Chicago and won the Arlington Classic by 13 lengths and then he dismantled good older horses in the Whitney Stakes by ten lengths. It was clear that Alydar was in fine fettle, but so it had been before the first Saturday in May.

I still remember the crowd that day as more than 50,000 fans descended on the Spa to revel in racing’s great rivalry. The attendance figure would crush the previous record at Saratoga, and the Zipse family proudly added four to the final total. It was their first contest since the unbelievable Belmont, and patrons hungered for another Affirmed-Alydar blockbuster. Only two others dared to stand in the way of the showdown. One was a Puerto Rican longshot with a flashy name, Shake Shake Shake, and the other was Nasty and Bold who was quietly becoming the third best horse in the division. The overflow crowd favored Affirmed, but despite the result of the Triple Crown, it was not clear cut. He was at 7-10, while Alydar was solidly supported at even money.

Anticipation for the race was palpable. Unfortunately the Travers would not be a repeat of the Belmont. It would go down something like this … As Affirmed took over the lead from Shake Shake Shake, Laffit Pincay, Jr., filling in for Steve Cauthen, moved Affirmed to the rail. He may not have realized how close Alydar, who had moved up strongly on the inside, was to him. The move forced Alydar and rider Jorge Velasquez to check sharply. Alydar dropped back suddenly and the race was as good as over. Affirmed easily held a comfortable advantage over Nasty and Bold, while Alydar showed courage in re-rallying. Despite the strong effort by Alydar, Affirmed would have plenty left in reserve to hit the finish line a length and three-quarters in front of his rival. The large crowd had seen the incident and the murmuring did not stop after the race. The inquiry sign went up, and although the two champions never bumped, Pincay’s move to the rail was deemed enough reason to take down the Triple Crown winner.

The greatest rivalry in modern racing would end on an unsatisfying disqualification. The 1978 Travers would turn out to be their tenth and final meeting. If the incident never happened, who would have won? I honestly have no idea, but I know it made for a most memorable first Travers for one young fan.

For a video of the race, please follow this link and be sure to come back and comment on my first Travers.


  1. Lucky you for being in attendance for such a thriller! It is really a shame one of the biggest rivalries in the history of the sport had to end with such a footnote. Let's hope we don't have a similiar situation in the Classic this year, or nobody will be satisfied!

  2. That (A DQ in the Classic) would not be good!

  3. Forgot about that DQ...watching it now, looks like Alydar would have beat Affirmed that day. He almost came to a complete stop!

    Amazing that two Horses that I consider to be top 10 all time to have been foaled the same year, and to race an unforgettable 10 times!

    Nice story...

  4. I wonder if we will ever see anything like it again, Mike.

  5. I did not recall that they faced each other again after the Belmont. A picture depicting that race hangs in my den. A great recollection, Brian. Let's hope some new lifetime fans are being created by our present great ones.

  6. hey brian...i too was lucky enough to be there....i remember how crowded it was that day and being a huge fan of alydar seeing him stopped like that....knew right away there would be a dq but wasnt the way i wanted it...keep up the good work brian, we need racing to come back to its heyday

  7. I was on the rail with my camera that day, and I was amazed to catch both horses in my lens. Mornings at the track in August featured breakfast by Harry Stevens at $5 (!), including fresh blueberries, and tours of the 1864 track structure. Those were the days!