Weekend Watch: 1978 Triple Crown — Affirmed vs. Alydar

May 1st, 2020

With nearly every major sports league suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, fans around the world are yearning for a return to normalcy.

The sports we love will be back, but in the interim, as we wait out the virus that has turned our world upside down, it's important to stay connected to the games we love.

Our Weekend Watch feature touches on the most significant moments in sports history, and luckily for us in this modern age, many of them are viewable online, in their entirety.

1978 Triple Crown: Affirmed vs. Alydar

With the "Kentucky Derby at Home" coming up Saturday, it's time we turned the Weekend Watch to horse racing.

In the modern culture of Thoroughbred racing, it's hard to imagine two elite horses facing off 10 times. There are still showdowns (my personal favorite in recent history was the Beholder-Songbird stretch battle in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Distaff), but good luck getting a heavyweight rematch, let alone a trilogy or more. Careers are too short, starts are too spread out for stakes horses, and it is too easy to dodge a rival for a softer opportunity elsewhere.

That's what makes the Affirmed-Alydar Triple Crown in 1978 so special. Not only did they battle it out as 3-year-olds, but before they met in each Triple Crown race, they had already faced off six times.

Affirmed won their first meeting when they were both 2 — a 5 1/2-furlong sprint in the Youthful S. — but it was Alydar's debut race, so his fifth-place finish was understandable. Alydar battled back to even the series with a convincing win in the Great American S., at the same 5 1/2-furlong distance.

The Hopeful (G1) went back to Affirmed, who held by a half-length, but it served the first of many thrilling stretch battles. The margin was even tighter in their next meeting, in the Futurity (G1), which Affirmed won by a nose, even though Alydar appeared to have him measured at the top of the lane. Alydar won the Champagne (G1) relatively easy, with a closing rush late, but Affirmed countered with another gritty victory in their last 2-year-old tussle, the Laurel Futurity (G1).

The pair wouldn't meet as 3-year-olds until the 1978 Kentucky Derby (G1).

Kentucky Derby

The least dramatic of the Triple Crown meetings, Affirmed, with a stalk-and-pounce trip, won the Derby fairly comfortably, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Alydar, who mostly picked up the pieces and was never a threat to win.

Preakness Stakes

Alydar cut into the Derby margin at Pimlico, but he still couldn't get by Affirmed at the wire. Now it felt as though Alydar was snake-bitten — simply born the wrong year.

Belmont Stakes

It would only get more heartbreaking for Alydar, but his effort in the Belmont, outside of his comfort zone, as a closer trying to go get the frontrunning Affirmed, made for one of the greatest stretch runs in racing history.

Alydar and jockey Jorge Velasquez made Affirmed and Steve Cauthen earn it.

Heading into the backstretch at Belmont Park, Velasquez and Alydar would not let Affirmed get loose. With about a mile to run, they went on the attack.

The pair threw down the rest of the way. Alydar moved alongside. Affirmed momentarily kicked away to open up a half-length advantage. Alydar moved up again. At the quarter pole, they were dead even. Race caller Chic Anderson said Alydar put his head in front in mid-stretch, but I'm not so sure he ever got the lead, even for split second.

Affirmed battled on the inside every step of the stretch and deservedly prevailed. He was never going to let his rival by.

The rivalry unfortunately ended in one of the most dissatisfying ways imaginable. Affirmed crossed the wire first in the Travers (G1) but was disqualified for interference, because of a foul he committed on the backside, when Alydar attempted to challenge through a hole on the rail.

But we won't dwell on the negative. The Travers did nothing to tarnish the greatest rivalry in racing history.

Tune into Churchill Downs’ virtual "Kentucky Derby at Home" party on NBC on May 2, from 3-6 p.m. ET