As Steve Wolfson glanced around an exhibit created in honor of famed Triple Crown winner Affirmed, he breathed deeply and said, "I'm thrilled that it would be somewhere like this."
Wolfson attended a reception for the June 6 opening of the permanent exhibit at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. Also in attendance was jockey Steve Cauthen, who was aboard Affirmed for his victories in the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, all grade I events.
Adorning the walls of the large exhibition are several jockey caricatures and equine cartoons drawn by artist Pierre "Peb" Bellocq of Affirmed and Steve Cauthen, Lazaro Barrera, and Laffit Pincay Jr., who guided the horse throughout most of his career.
In the corner of the room is a large glass case containing the silks of his owners, Louis Wolfson and his wife, Patrice, along with more jockey memorabilia and a life-sized photograph of Patrice Wolfson with Affirmed, who had always called the horse "her baby." Due to poor weather conditions, Patrice Wolfson was unable to attend the opening; however, she sent her regards through her stepson.
"(Patrice) has had three great men in her life--her father, my father, and Affirmed," Steve Wolfson said with a smile.
Gina Gibson, who helped design the exhibit, said it had been her goal to "focus on the Affirmed team--the people who made the horse great." She invited Cauthen, who was wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt with a horse racing print, to recount his favorite memories with Affirmed.
"(The exhibit) brings back what a great ride it was. I was lucky to get the mount on Affirmed…it was the luckiest day of my life," said the jockey of the horse who was the last to win the Triple Crown. "Just being around the horse made you feel good. He really attracted a lot of people to our sport, and that's what makes me feel so good about being a part of his great career."
Cauthen, nicknamed "the Kid" for the fact he was only 18 when he took the Triple Crown, was pictured on the cover of a 1978 issue of Time where he wore a boyish smile and had a cigar between his teeth. A copy of the publication was displayed in a case along with the jockey's boots and riding crop.
Also in cases and along the walls of the exhibit are pieces of jewelry given to Patrice Wolfson by her husband to celebrate their classic wins, framed paintings of Affirmed, a braid of his hair, a complete collection of his trophies, and hundreds of newspaper clippings recounting his career.
Scripted on the wall inside the case containing the Wolfsons' silks is a quote from Jorge Velasquez, the jockey of Affirmed's biggest rival, Alydar, who finished second by 1 1/2 lengths, a neck, and a head respectively, in the Triple Crown races. "(Affirmed) is a great horse…as great as Secretariat, Native Dancer, or any of the other great horses," the quote reads.
In reflecting on the exhibit as a whole, Steve Wolfson said: "(My father) would be very appreciative of all the glory that has been rekindled. (The Kentucky Horse Park staff) has brought it all back to life. When Patrice comes here, she'll be very emotional. More than anything, the Triple Crown and winning the Belmont marked the resurrection of my father who had had some difficulties in his business. He, Patrice, and the whole family rose again. Affirmed was the catalyst to the return of my father, and that's what has meant the most to me."
Trained by Barrera, Affirmed charged to victory in 22 of his 29 lifetime starts, only finishing off the board once in his career. He retired with earnings of more than $2.3 million.
Affirmed sired 79 stakes winners and 12 champions. He started his stud career at Spendthrift Farm, moved to Calumet Farm where his rival, Alydar, stood, and then was moved to Jonabell Farm. A statue of him is located near the stallion barn at Jonabell, now called Darley at Jonabell.
The multiple champion was euthanized at the Lexington farm Jan. 12, 2001, due to chronic leg problems resulting from old age. He was 26.
One of the most touching features of the exhibit is a sound recording of comments made by Affirmed's connections.
In Louis Wolfson's account of Affirmed, he said simply: "He was the smartest horse we ever had. He just did everything right. We were so proud--(winning the Belmont) really moved me…very few things in this business move me, but this horse has."