The Heart that Wears the Crown: Affirmed

December 1st, 2023

When American Pharoah bounded home as the 12th Triple Crown winner in 2015, he ended a 37-year drought that dated back to 1978 and the storied season that saw Affirmed and Alydar battled through the spring classics. Their fierce rivalry captivates the sport to this day as the images of their stretch duels remain burned into the memories of fans everywhere. 

But who was the lanky chestnut colt that came out on top, the one that followed Seattle Slew into history a scant 12 months after his own classic campaign? The combination of an easygoing disposition, a clever mind, and an iron will gave Affirmed everything he would need to turn away his challengers and become an immortal.

An Owner’s Pet

By 1974, Won’t Tell You had produced five foals, all winners but no standouts – yet. The bay mare herself had been a winner on the racetrack, but those came in claiming races, nothing recommending her as a fitting broodmare prospect except for her pedigree. When Lou and Patrice Wolfson bought her for $18,000 in 1972, it was her sire, Crafty Admiral, that caught their eye. A champion handicapper of the 1950s, the stallion was known for the soundness he passed on to his progeny. The Wolfsons paired Won’t Tell You with their homebred stallion Exclusive Native, and on February 21, 1975, she foaled a golden chestnut colt with a star and a stripe, a colt they would christen Affirmed. 

Lithe and leggy, Won’t Tell You’s colt was well-balanced, but otherwise unremarkable at first. When the Wolfsons visited their Harbor View Farm in Ocala, Florida, they watched their young horses running and playing in their paddock, leaning on the fence to take in the scene. Patrice spotted Won’t Tell You’s colt, a relatively tall fellow who also was among the leanest of the lot. He stopped his play and trotted over to the fence to her, sticking his nose out to nuzzle her and then jutting his head in her arms. Instantly a bond formed between owner and horse, one that would last well beyond the colt’s time at the farm and the racetrack. 

Though the golden chestnut colt did not initially stand out from the rest, the bond he had formed with Patrice, whose father Hirsch Jacobs had trained the famed Stymie, made him her particular favorite. It was not until Affirmed started training in earnest that the Wolfsons knew that the colt was more than just Patrice’s pet. 

A Gentle Soul

The mellow nature Affirmed had as a youngster followed him to the racetrack. He was known for taking long naps, sleeping so deeply that grooms would have to step over him to fill his feed tub at mealtime. When he woke, the colt would eat at the same leisurely pace and then lie back down for another nap. 

That sereneness remained even when Affirmed was in the midst of his preparations for his career ahead. When Harbor View’s trainer Melvin James started the colt’s lessons, the colt remained the most placid of all of the yearlings, quiet throughout the breaking process and even at times looking almost bored with the experience. He did not buck or shy when an exercise rider first put his weight on the colt’s back. He nonchalantly turned right and left during those first rides, his nature still as placid and as easygoing as always. It was almost like he had been doing it all the whole of his short life. 

On the track, he only gave so much during those first workouts. He would do just enough to finish ahead of his workmates but did not allow anyone to pass him. He would give whatever it took to maintain that advantage, even if it was only a few inches. That determination plus his way of going, the intangibles of speed and stamina in spades, impressed both Willie and Luis Barrera, brothers of and assistants to Harbor View Farm’s trainer Laz Barrera. After Affirmed won his first race by 4 1/2 lengths, Laz himself noted the colt’s talent and took over his training himself, understanding that Patrice’s pet with a habit of snoozing was indeed something special. 

A Fierce Competitor

Like the second Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox, Affirmed tended to give just enough to get the workout in or to win and would even get bored when running alone. His ease of motion belied the speed he possessed as Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. found out when working a two-year-old Affirmed in 1977. Barrera wanted a five-furlong breeze, so Pincay took the colt out for the prescribed exercise but noticed that his mount did not seem to be working terribly hard, his ears swiveling around as he ran. When Pincay checked in with Barrera afterward, he told the trainer he thought the colt covered the five furlongs in around 1:01, a moderate pace of just over 12 seconds per furlong. “No,” Barrera told the jockey, “It was :58.” Underneath that ease and mildness was a horse with speed and tenacity to spare.  

That habit of winning by inches as a young horse in training carried over to Affirmed’s three seasons of competition. The ease that Affirmed took to training and racing showed that Won’t Tell You’s colt would be a consummate professional on the racetrack, his quick intelligence an asset – sometimes. Jockey Steve Cauthen, with whom Affirmed would notch his Triple Crown victories, saw the colt’s tendency to give just enough and learned to balance it with what he needed to win. Barrera worried that the colt’s intelligence would work against him as he would loaf once on the lead, which could allow a closer to surprise him. He instructed Cauthen to give the colt a tap to keep the colt focused whenever Affirmed would prick his ears forward and start to slow down. 

Each time they faced rival Alydar, Cauthen understood that his great colt thrived on running in close quarters, not shying away from looking his competitor in the eye and passing him. Affirmed would dig in and push ahead, repelling each challenge, a veritable “iron wall,” as trainer Woody Stephens called him. It was that steely determination that pushed Affirmed past Alydar in the waning strides of the 1978 Belmont Stakes, the margin between history and defeat only a head. That need to persevere would serve this champion time and again as he faced horses like Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, and more. 

The heart that wore the 11th Triple Crown was one of a horse with exceptional talent, indomitable resolve, and a kind and intelligent heart. When he dumped his exercise rider and bolted one day at Santa Anita Park, he ran free through the gap and into the barn area, sending his trainer into a panic; when Barrera found the colt minutes later, Affirmed hung his head, sensing that he had done something wrong. Alongside that intelligence was a mellowness that allowed him to sleep through a TV camera crew climbing into the rafters of his stall to film him in the overnight hours before his Belmont Stakes win. Forever coupled with Alydar, Affirmed occupies a special place in the hearts of racing fans who remember how the lanky chestnut repelled his rival’s challenges to the very end.