Derby Remix: Affirmed never got to Alydar

May 21st, 2020

Coming into the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Alydar was riding a wave of three Grade 1 wins. In all three of those starts, he was out of the shadow of Affirmed — a horse he faced six times as a juvenile but only beaten twice.

Alydar poured his heart out at Churchill but fell short by a length and a half. He returned to his stall to rest, recuperate, and steel his nerves for the next round. He fell a neck short in the Preakness (G1), then steeled his nerves again. He came closer in the Belmont (G1) but fell a head short.

"Sea of hurt, I feel the waves of pain

And now the tides come in again

I'm caught in a vicious cycle of despair

Give me the courage to face another day"

That cycle of disappointment and regrouping mirrors Killing Joke's "You'll Never Get to Me." After each frustrated verse comes a strangely anthemic chorus refrain. The protagonist knows there's something out there he should be happy about, and dredges up words of unabashed optimism, but could only growl them through gritted teeth.

"I'll never let you get to me

Survival is my victory

Time for celebration, Oh!

Overcome with a sense of elation"

Alydar's resting place (Vance Hanson)Alydar's resting place. (Photo by Vance Hanson)

Alydar never lost his heart. Summer brought moments when cries for celebration and elation rolled off the tongue more easily. After the Belmont, Alydar won three straight races. He beat his own age group in the Arlington Classic (G2), then blitzed older foes in the Whitney (G2).

The tone of the chorus became apt for a different reason in Alydar's 3-year-old finale. In the Travers (G1), he achieved his third victory over Affirmed, though by disqualification. Alydar took up sharply into the far turn, after Affirmed cut him off. Alydar stayed on his feet — survival was his victory, indeed! — though left the world wondering what would have happened in a fair race.

After that trying campaign, Alydar epitomizes the horse who relentlessly holds onto his winning spirit, even after losing a string of battles along the way.