This was the greatest definition of the word ‘race’ horse racing has ever offered

Historic battle: Alydar (nearside) and Affirmed in that 1978 Belmont Stakes. Photo: AP

Since I’m a rather nostalgic guy, it was simple to understand the feeling that took hold of me last Thursday. While walking through the third floor of the clubhouse inside still Beautiful Belmont Park, an urge came over me to stroll into the grandstand and head toward the other end of a structure as long as the Empire State Building is tall.

For about a furlong, it was a journey in silence through a deserted building. There were signs of the excitement and crowds to come a little more than a week in the future with the Belmont Stakes on June 9, like empty pari-mutuel bays, food carts and refrigeration units and temporary walls set up for dining areas during the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival. Yet there was not a soul to be found on this overcast afternoon.

Finally, at about the eighth pole, I went out to the seating area and climbed the stairs to the fourth floor before turning into a row midway up the large section of seats and sitting down.

Unforgettable battle

Looking out on the racetrack, it was a view similar to one from 40 years ago, the afternoon of June 10, 1978. That was the day I was a 21-year-old recent college grad with a fervent hope to work in the newspaper industry and a lifetime of adventures in front of me, and I was also fortunate enough to watch the greatest horse race anyone could ever hope to see.

It was Affirmed vs. Alydar. An unforgettable battle that was never been equaled in the last 40 years and may not have a peer for another 400.

If you’re thinking that I closed my eyes for a moment and then could see and hear the eights and sounds of 1978, well, this is real life, not a movie. There was silence before and after my eyes closed. Instead, I cheated. I took out my cell phone, went to YouTube, watched a video clip of the 1978 Belmont and took my stroll down memory lane with a race for the ages.

The joys of living in a digital era.

I’m not exactly sure of how many times I have watched a tape of the 1978 Belmont Stakes. You tend to lose count after you extend into the hundreds. Never has it failed to thrill, and not once in the past 47 years that I have followed horse racing have I watched a horse race that generated the same level of intense emotions as Alydar and Affirmed did in the 110th edition of The Test of the Champion.

You had to be there that day to fully understand. Watching a video clip is surely uplifting, but it’s the live memories of the sights, sounds and drama at Belmont Park that give the race the full complement of justice it deserves and why that 2:26⅘ of time stands alone in terms of energy, tension and excitement.

You see, as much as Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont was surely the greatest performance the sport has ever seen, it was a different beast from the 1978 Belmont.

In 1973, the entire nation rooted for Secretariat. Sham, who was second in the Derby and Preakness, was a good rival, but was certainly no match for him, losing by identical 2½-length margins in both races.

From a personal experience, on the final turn, when Secretariat put Sham in the rearview mirror and began to run “like a tremendous machine”, you began to cheer but then grew silent as you tried to comprehend what was happening. You wondered to yourself, “Is this possible?,” “Is he going too fast?,” “Oh, my lord,” and then, quite simply, “Wow” as you marveled at an other-worldly effort. It wasn’t until the wire approached, and the other horses were closer to the sixteenth pole than the finish line, you began cheering at the top of your lungs to celebrate.

It was the kind of performance no one will ever match.

The outcome was a mystery until the very last strides

And yet, for all of that magnificence, what gives horse racing its unique appeal are those exhilaration moments when two or more horses engage in a heated battle that is not decided until the final strides. They are throwbacks to what started the sport centuries ago. A vehicle to decide whether one horse was faster than the other.

In Secretariat’s case there was no doubt who was faster. Yet for Harbor View Farm’s Affirmed and Alydar in the 1978 Belmont, in the ninth of their ten meetings (a total that’s ludicrous these days), they battled for the better part of a mile-and-a-half and the outcome was a mystery until the very last strides. It was the epitome of a horse race and the one that should be put in a time capsule for future generations to behold as an example of what kept the sport alive for so many years.

It was the greatest definition of the word race that horse racing has ever offered.

Factoring into this was the tremendous passion – and respect – both camps of fans had for each amazing horse. What stands out most about them is that in the ten times they met, one or the other won that race every time and they were 1-2 in all but one of those ten stakes.

The talent in each of them kept the rivalry robust even though Affirmed came into the Belmont with a decided 6-2 advantage. Alydar fans were undaunted that day since four of those losses were by a half-length or less and there was a firm belief the longest of the Triple Crown races over the track where Alydar posted his two wins over Affirmed would allow the homebred Calumet Farm star to turn the tables on his rival.

A huge roar rose from the grandstand

While there was no sure way of measuring, it would be no surprise if the crowd of 65,417 was split 50-50 in favoring one of them. If it was 51-49 in favor of the slight underdog, Alydar, that, too, would not have been shocking. In the betting, Affirmed was 3/5 and Alydar 6/5, even with all of the souvenir win tickets purchased on Affirmed. A year earlier, Seattle Slew was a 2/5 favorite over 5/1 second choice Run Dusty Run in his successful bid for the Triple Crown.

What’s certain is that everyone came to the 1978 Belmont to see an electrifying duel between Affirmed and Alydar, and they did not leave disappointed.

The anticipation built in the early stages of the mile-and-a-half test as jockey Steve Cauthen (guess what he chose as his fondest memory when interviewed in TRC’s What They’re Thinking series last month) set a leisurely early pace with Affirmed and Jorge Velasquez tracked about a length or so behind with Alydar in the field of five.

Once the field reached the backstretch, Velasquez made his move with seven furlongs left and quickly drew alongside Affirmed. At that same moment, a huge roar arose from the grandstand as it became apparent that after five furlongs of running, the race was now beginning. The battle between Affirmed and Alydar was on and everyone was joining in.

Over the course of those seven furlongs, as the horses moved closer to the finish line, the decibel level increased proportionally until it reached  ‘deafening’. Everyone was standing and screaming at the top of their lungs, waving their fists in the air, stomping the ground, kicking the chair in front of them, doing anything they could to help will their horse to victory in a battle between two inseparable objects.

As the rivals wheeled around the turn and turned into the stretch, there was only the slightest of difference between. To me, when they passed my seat, it seemed like Alydar had a slim lead and later I would hear track announce Chick Anderson acknowledge that. Yet it proved to be the same kind of mirage that happens in the desert.

Alydar, running on the same lead (sorry, I had to work that excuse in), could not get by. Affirmed, as he did in the vast majority of their races, had too much heart. In the final yards, with the cheering and the emotional support at its peak, he gallantly responded to left-handed urging from Cauthen to prevail by a head.

Officially, it was a photo finish, but from sitting in that same area of Belmont Park on numerous occasions, I knew Affirmed won. So when the numbers were posted on the toteboard, the disappointment was muted. Instead there was a realization setting in that I had just seen something so very special, erasing any frustration over the outcome. I wished it could have ended in Alydar’s favor, but it was such an emotional experience that I wanted to see it again, and again, and again and savor it every time.

Great moments and simple pleasures

About a year later, I was gainfully employed and splurged to the tune of about $800 on a new contraption called a VCR that actually taped television shows. As soon as I hooked it up, there two things I that had me scouring the TV Guide and racing shows. The second was Secretariat’s Belmont and the first, of course, was Affirmed and Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, and once they were recorded that tape became as worn out as my first Silk Degrees LP from that era. I am a creature of habit.

Much has changed since that incomparable day in 1978. I spent the next 40 years, working in sports journalism and never regretted a minute of it. My wonderful wife and I have been married for nearly 32 years and we have raised three fabulous sons, all of it highlights of my life.

Yet taking a half-hour out from modern-day life and going back in time to the days before all of that also brought a smile to my face. It was a reminder not of how time passes too quickly but of the many great moments and simple pleasures that have been crammed into your lifetime and never fail to satisfy, both then and now.

Moments like Affirmed and Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes. The greatest horse race ever.

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