Marty Wolfson was flashing back. The year was 1978, and Wolfson, who was 26 years old at the time, was watching as Affirmed, owned by his father Louis Wolfson's Harbor View Farms, hooked up with Alydar in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and produced one of the most intense battles known to the sport.
Now, 22-years later, Wolfson is a wizened trainer, albeit one who had been "stressed out" by the six-week wait between the middle leg of the Florida Stallion Stakes series for colts--ironically enough named the Affirmed Stakes--and the finale on Oct. 7. The series, for the juvenile progeny of registered Florida stallions, is Calder's marquee event, and Wolfson was in a position to sweep the open division with A.C. "Butch" Silva's Express Tour.
"Any sweep is tough," Wolfson said in the days before the race. "Whether it's the Triple Crown or the Stallion Stakes."
Wolfson admitted to spending hours watching the Weather Channel, hoping South Florida's torrential rains earlier in the week that had forced the postponement of two grass stakes on this day would not interrupt Express Tour's training schedule.
"It's a real challenge to keep a big horse like this--he's 17.2 hands tall--ready over a six-week period," he said.
But Wolfson had his leggy chestnut ready, and all he could do was watch and remember when, after his colt assumed the early lead and slipped to the rail, an undefeated Kentucky shipper named Outofthebox drew alongside and the pair matched strides for a protracted half-mile duel.
"He really was just like Affirmed, showing how determined he can be when somebody hooks him," admired the trainer. "Not too many horses can come back like that when they get headed."
That occurred on the turn, as the Bert Klein and family's son of Montbrook briefly put his nose in front. But he was forced to play the role of Alydar, coming up three-quarters of a length short under the wire in 1:45.12 for the 1 1/16 miles.
"I don't want to make any excuses for him," said Steve Flint, who saddled the second-place finisher in the absence of his father, trainer Bernie Flint. "The winner was great." Flint then went on to recite a litany of excuses, including the weather, the shipping, and the post position.
The win was worth $290,000 to Silva--$50,000 of it for owning the first horse since Seacliff in 1995 to sweep the series--and it left him considering investing $90,000 to supplement Express Tour to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I).
"I think he showed he belongs," Wolfson remarked. "You don't get too many chances to take a horse, and I think this is a weak year for 2-year-olds."
Silva, though, who with wife Karen runs the commercial breeding operation Hickory Meadow Farm near Ocala, Fla., has been looking to unload his homebred son of Tour d'Or ever since he was a yearling. "We'd rather watch other people win with them," he said, even as his colt's value and stature grew.
In addition to the hopeful trainer, the stars of the day were jockey Julio Garcia and trainer Ralph Ziadie. Garcia, a 37-year-old journeyman, has had an erratic career since exploding onto the scene as Santa Anita's top apprentice in 1984, a situation he attributes to "too many injuries and becoming homesick." The latter trait has driven him to his native Puerto Rico on at least four occasions.
But after becoming only the third rider in the series' 19-year history to take both the finale of the open division and the filly division, Garcia is rooted. "No more Puerto Rico," he declared.
Garcia's winning mount in the filly division, Centuar Farms' homebred Valid Forbes, both pleased and confused her trainer. Ziadie had been doing an interesting tango during the three-race progression, first claiming that Silk Concorde "was the better of the pair," despite stablemate Valid Forbes defeating her in the opening leg, then asserting "Halo Reality is better than both of them," when Silk Concorde turned the tables in the middle division.
But with Halo Reality ambitiously placed in the open division--she finished ninth--and Silk Concorde looking like a sprinter, Valid Forbes helped Ziadie become only the second trainer to sweep the series with two horses when she rallied to defeat Rule Brittania by three lengths.
"I have very mixed emotions," said the 61-year-old native of Jamaica, failing to hold back tears. "I'm a very good trainer but not a good handicapper."