Rivalries in horse racing aren’t common. Horses are swapped out quickly, jockeys don’t always stick with the same thoroughbred, and that combination means meeting the same horse and jockey in a longstanding race isn’t typical.
However, that statement changes when we consider the Kentucky Derby. With three races in quick succession, the chance for a true rivalry is real.
And the best rivalry in history? Affirmed vs Alydar.
How It Began
If you don’t know a lot about the Triple Crown, then read this guide for Kentucky Derby. Essentially there are three races, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. To win the Triple Crown you need to win all 3 races. Only a handful of horses and jockeys have had the honor.
In 1978, horses Affirmed and Alydar were part of the 1st race. They were both clearly talented, and for nearly 4 miles they rode side by side.
In the end, Affirmed won that race by 1.5 lengths.
During the Preakness, we saw the same back and forth for a tension-building race. In the end, Affirmed won, but only by a neck. The gap was shortening.
The Belmont Stakes And The Triple Crown
At this point, the racing community was on the edge of their seats. This could be the year of a Triple Crown.
Alydar had one more chance to win otherwise Affirmed would have the rarest title in the sport.
The race began and it was neck and neck. For the last 7 furlongs, neither pushed ahead of the other. The crowd was silent, it could go either way.
They both crossed the finish line, and a photo finish called the results.
Affirmed had won by a head. His stamina is just a fraction stronger than Alydar’s.
7 Out Of 10 Races
The Triple Crown Wasn’t their only race as rivals, but it was the most dramatic. Affirmed won 7 of the 10 races they held together, making him the better horse despite the close calls.
The 3 races that Alydar won some argue should be just 2. That’s because the 1978 Travers win against Affirmed was due to a disqualification.
If Affirmed wasn’t around, Alyrad would have been an undoubted star all on his own. But now he is known as the main rival to Affirmed.
When it comes to talent, both horses and riders were overflowing. However, their styles and atmosphere were entirely different.
Alydar was a classy horse. He was bred for the occasion, spent time in the world’s most famous horse farms, and was always dressed to impress.
And even though Alydar had a royal quality about him, he would deliver a strong kick if needed.
Affirmed, however, was the opposite. He was bred among the less affluent breeders, but his resolve and determination to win were immense.
Where Alydra was taught by the best Affirmed had a raw quality to him.
If you look at all of Affirmed’s wins, he won them by a length or less – almost as though his challenge wasn’t to cross the line first, but to find a target and beat them.
He loved the fight and enjoyed the chase. Affirmed never quit, he would always race to his max.
Jorge Velasquez and Steve Cauthen
Velasquez was Alydar’s rider. Cauthen was Affirmed’s.
On the day of the Belmont Race, both believed they would win. Velasquez was adminant about it. He believed Alydar had more stamina, all he had to do was outlast his opponent.
When the race began, Cauthen made Affirmed take up the pace-making role. Velasquez saw that Affirmed was just galloping, not sprinting. He saw his chance and changed speed. Alydar accelerated, and quick as a flash, Affirmed changed his speed too.
They ran as if tied together, one not outreaching the other.
At the 3-16ths pole, Velasquez was ahead. He was close to tears as the race continued. He thought the two of them were close to winning.
Cauthen became frustrated and tried a new trick to make Affirmed go faster. He switches sticks and hits Affirmed from the left hand.
Affirmed jolted in surprise and surged ahead, winning the race.
Cauthen, at just 18, had become the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown.
Throughout the whole race, neither jockey said a word to the other. They were concentrating so hard that they heard no sound.
The rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar was one of the best in history.
Other outstanding rivalries include Sunday Silence versus Easy Goer, Meadow Star versus Light Light, and Swaps versus Nashua.
Each had its jaw-dropping moments, and if you were there to witness the events you can still feel the emotion of the day.
However, unlike the other top rivalries, the Affirmed and Alydar battle has become a culture. The race to the Triple Crown was cemented with these horses.
It was the peak of what the collective races aspired to be. A battle in every race, a heart-pumping worry as both horses are neck and neck, and a rivalry that could be turned into a movie.