Game at Its Best

By John Veitch

There is not a year that goes by, when the first Saturday in May approaches, that 1978 and Alydar don't come to life in my subconscious. This year is no different, and with the passing of his constant rival, the great horse Affirmed, it is even stronger.

After Affirmed and Alydar's freshman year of 1977, the winter of 1978 for Alydar was spent in Florida; Affirmed was in California. They were not to meet until the sixth of May at Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses.

One of the most trying times for a trainer of an outstanding 2-year-old is his first start as a 3-year-old. Will he be as good or better? Was he just precocious? Have the others caught up to him? Have all your hopes for the Derby and a great year gone before the game is truly afoot?

Those questions were answered at Hialeah on Feb. 11, 1978, with Alydar's easy victory going seven furlongs in an allowance race. Then on to the Flamingo and a 4 1/2-length decision over Noon Time Spender. Without missing a beat, four weeks later was the Florida Derby and a meeting with a foe who had turned back Alydar in the Remsen Stakes of 1977. Believe It, trained by the always dangerous Woody Stephens, would be no pushover. On the first of April came a two-length victory and revenge over Believe It, and the Florida campaign was over.

The journey to this point had been perfect for Alydar. In California, Affirmed had been facing an extremely wet winter and had to curtail a considerable amount of training time. Against the elements, Affirmed still won four races, three of them stakes, and appeared to be at the top of his game.

After Alydar won the Florida Derby, it was on to the Blue Grass at Keeneland in Lexington, one step closer to the most important race in America and one held dearest to Calumet -- the Kentucky Derby. If the horse is King in Kentucky, surely Calumet Farm is the Kingdom. That small patch of green grass surrounded by white fences that encase the white and red-trimmed barns is where enough great horses were raised to fill a pantheon of racing heroes. It was not just the horses alone that made Calumet unique, but the people who dedicated themselves and in some measure their entire working lives to the devil's red and blue. For them, though the glory years may have been in the past, the flame of pride in the farm had not been extinguished.

On April 27, Alydar would make his final appearance before the Derby. Not a mile from the barn where he was born, he carried to victory the hopes and dreams of those who had waited a decade for the glory to return to Calumet.

Mrs. Lucille Markey and the Admiral were in poor health and attending the Blue Grass would have been impossible if not for the genuine kindness of Keeneland's Ted Bassett. Special arrangements were made for the Markeys' car to park close to the rail at the head of the stretch. As the post parade moved near the Markeys, jockey Jorge Velasquez brought Alydar close to his lady; stopping, the horse placed his right foot forward and dropped his head, bowing in respect as if knowing it would be the last race that Mrs. Markey would attend and the last time she would ever see her beloved horse.

The Derby for Alydar was not to be. He was closer two weeks later in the Preakness. A change of tactics three weeks later in the Belmont saw Affirmed and Alydar thrill the racing world with one of the most spectacular stretch runs ever witnessed. The Triple Crown was over and Affirmed and Alydar covered themselves with glory, but there was something else that added to this greatness. Never in those long months when their two horses were engaged in a fierce struggle, was one word of disrespect or animosity exchanged. Mr. and Mrs. Louis Wolfson, their trainer Laz Barrera, and jockey Steve Cauthen were as noble as their great champion. Mrs. Markey conducted herself as a great sportswoman and never once thought about avoiding the continuance of the contest and thus seeking an easier route to victory.

This truly is the game at its best.

JOHN VEITCH conditioned Alydar and three champion fillies as Calumet Farm's private trainer from 1976-82.