With the recent release of the movie Secretariat, interest in the Triple Crown has been renewed, especially the magic decade of the 1970s in American horse racing. Affirmed and Alydar, who battled neck and neck in 1977 and 1978 in their 2 and 3-year-old seasons, remains the greatest Thoroughbred rivalry ever seen. In his latest book, Florida-based sports author Lou Sahadi tackles the sport of horse racing for the first time, thoroughly covering 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, Alydar, the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races, and their human connections, who came from completely different walks of life to make history.
Sahadi made extensive use of interviews, especially with Affirmed's jockey Steve Cauthen, and the family of owner Louis Wolfson. In the book, Cauthen is presented as the superstar that he was, a young jockey from a racing family who took up riding as early as he could, and quickly rose to the top of the national standings by wins. Trainer Laz Barrera was the classic rags to riches story, who escaped his native Cuba as Fidel Castro rose to power, then on to Mexico, and finally to Southern California. Louis Wolfson was a convicted felon and one-time professional boxer, having spent a year in prison for a white-collar crime, who sought to clear his name and regain the public's respect through his racing stable Harbor View Farm and his star racehorse, while his wife Patrice was the daughter of famous trainer Hirsch Jacobs.
After researching news articles of the day, and combined with the many hours of interviews with the surviving human connections, Sahadi sets the stage for the 1978 Triple Crown. He describes each of the head-to-head matchups starting with the 1977 Youthful at Belmont Park. Although Alydar and his connections were as blue-blooded as they come, bred and raced by the once-powerful Calumet Farm and trained by John Veitch, he was also seen as a savior for his owners, as Calumet sought to regain past glory as its owners, Gene and Lucille Markey, were in their 80's and in poor health. On paper the rivalry appeared to be a bitter one, but both sides were great sports, never resorting to negative comments about their competition in the media. Barrera showed great confidence sticking with the then 17-year-old Cauthen to ride his stable star, while Veitch went with cagey veteran Jorge Velasquez for Alydar.
The reader can easily imagine what it was like watching Affirmed and Alydar hook up in the stretch, as they did so many times. Sahadi gave each of the Triple Crown races its own chapter, covering the lead-up and the media hype, the excitement of raceday including which celebrities were in attendance, and the aftermath, what was said in the post-race news conferences. He made sure that Barrera was given his due, as in those days Cauthen was the media darling and sadly, the trainer was often forgotten, and was even snubbed after the Preakness win, the press box elevator leaving him behind as reporters and officials ushered the jockey up for the post-race interviews. The 1978 Belmont Stakes, won by Affirmed by a head after battling the entire final quarter mile, is considered one of the greatest stretch runs of all time, a fact made very clear through Sahadi's stirring narrative.
Sahadi covered the post-Triple Crown life of Affirmed relatively briefly. The rivalry got ugly when new jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., replacing the injured Cauthen, interfered with Alydar and was disqualified, handing Alydar a victory over his rival and, according to Veitch, "I don't consider that we won." The Travers would be the final head-to-head matchup between them. Affirmed's 3-year-old season ended with his only career out-of-the-money finish, when Cauthen's saddle slipped during the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Cauthen, suffering weight problems and a slump, moved his tack to Europe in 1979, handing Pincay the assignment for the balance of Affirmed's career. Affirmed would win his last 5 starts including the Jockey Club Gold Cup to be named Horse of the Year two years in a row.
Sahadi included an epilogue, touching on the death of Alydar and the fall of Calumet under J.T. Lundy, Affirmed's death 10 years after his rival, and the lives of jockeys Steve Cauthen and Jorge Velasquez and Alydar's trainer John Veitch, all still involved in racing. The appendix includes a fact sheet listing some key facts about Affirmed and the rivalry, complete past performances for Affirmed's 29-race career, and the Daily Racing Form charts for the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, the last time the Triple Crown has been swept.
With this work, Sahadi has successfully covered horse racing and has done justice to Affirmed and Alydar, as well as their human connections and many fans, forever connected in history as the combatants of the greatest rivalry ever seen on the American turf. Sahadi specializes in writing about sports history and keeping the reader's interest from cover to cover, and he clearly succeeds here, aided by an already exciting story that just needed to be told by such a master of his craft. This book is highly recommended for all fans of racing history, as well as to fans of American sports history, as the 1970's truly were the golden age of horse racing.
Affirmed: The Last Triple Crown Winner has a list price of $24.99 and can be purchased from Amazon.com for $16.49.
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