Steve Wolfson was just a kid in 1963, but he has a clear recollection of the August morning his father, Louis, received a troubling phone call at his farm office in Ocala, Fla.
The person at the other end of the line was trainer Burley Parke, whom Lou Wolfson had coaxed out of retirement after he decided only a few years earlier to focus his energies on developing Harbor View Farm into a racing and breeding powerhouse.
Parke had some bad news about the 2-year-old Native Dancer--Raise You colt the Wolfsons had purchased for $39,000 from Mrs. E.H. Augustus at the 1962 Saratoga yearling sale. The colt, Raise a Native, was already the talk of the racing world, winning all four of his starts over a five-month period.
But Raise a Native would never race again. Parke told Wolfson the colt bowed a tendon while breezing the morning before the Sapling Stakes.
Steve Wolfson recalled a change of expression on his father's face, a look of concern that he hadn't seen before. Lou Wolfson didn't second-guess his trainer and didn't curse his own bad luck. All he could say was, "Burley, are you going to be OK?"
The younger Wolfson recounted that story during a brief ceremony to unveil a statue of Raise a Native's grandson, Triple Crown winner Affirmed, at Sheikh Mohammed's Darley at Jonabell Farm in Lexington Sept. 26. The statue, sculped by Gwen Reardon, sits on the farm formerly owned by John A. Bell III and wife Jessica where Affirmed stood his final nine seasons at stud.
Louis and Patrice Wolfson were not able to attend the ceremony, but others who were close to Affirmed shared their stories about the two-time Horse of the Year and the sporting husband and wife team who bred and raced the son of Exclusive Native out of the Crafty Admiral mare Won't Tell You.
One of those who always seemed close to Affirmed, though seldom ahead of him, was John Veitch, the trainer of Calumet Farm's Alydar, who battled valiantly through the Triple Crown but ultimately played second-fiddle to Affirmed. Veitch spoke of the class both sides displayed and the lack of rancor during what was one of horse racing's greatest rivalries ever.
In some ways, the late 1970s was the end of an era dominated by sportsmen, men and women who took pleasure in watching their horses run and who didn't let multi-million-dollar syndication offers pull racing stars off to the breeding shed early. Back then, less than 20% of all North American Thoroughbred foals were entered to be sold as yearlings at public auction. Today, nearly 36% of North American foals are entered in yearling sales.
Lou Wolfson believes one of the measurements of greatness is how well a horse performs at four. Affirmed was a champion at two, winning seven of nine starts. He was a champion and Horse of the Year at three, finishing first in nine of 11 starts, though he was disqualified from a victory in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) for interference.
Affirmed lost his first two races at four, then swept his final seven starts, often carrying top imposts to glory: 128 pounds in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I); 130 in the Californian Stakes (gr. I); and 132 in the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I).
His career numbers are remarkable, especially considering the quality of his competition, which included fellow Hall-of-Famers Alydar, Seattle Slew, Exceller, and Spectacular Bid. Over a three-year period, Affirmed won 22 of 29 starts, including 14 grade I races.
Racing could use another Affirmed. It also needs more sportsmen like Louis and Patrice Wolfson.