Bench Mark Thoroughbred

By John Williams -- As many of us coped with the death of Affirmed on Jan. 12, one underlying theme was evident: it seemed everybody connected to the horse considered it a privilege that he had touched their lives. This had been true all of his life, I am sure.

In the last decade of his life, Affirmed was a special individual to the owners and crew at Jonabell Farm, just as he had been at Calumet and Spendthrift in the earlier phases of his stallion career. Dr. Larry Bramlage and others at Rood and Riddle, who had the important but somber assignment of tending to him in his final weeks, also found Affirmed getting close to their hearts. There were tears at Rood and Riddle, as well as at Jonabell, and beyond.

From a personal perspective, it is almost impossible to exaggerate what Affirmed has meant to me. Having had the enormous fortune to be hired as manager of Spendthrift Farm in 1976, I became associated with Mr. and Mrs. Louis Wolfson of Harbor View Farm, owner and breeder of the 1978 Triple Crown winner. Spendthrift Farm recruited a number of Harbor View horses for its powerful stallion barn. For me, the Harbor View connection later became a pivotal association, as I was given the assignment of caring for their mares when I began my own farm. More than that, it developed into a combination of friendship and service. How often Mr. Wolfson has carefully listened to me regarding matters of a sale, breeding plans, or a purchase, and stated simply, "Use your judgment." Such ongoing trust means a great deal to an employee. Like her husband, Mrs. Wolfson--the former Patrice Jacobs--has an equal understanding of the game, nurtured by the great careers of the many Jacobs family champions.

In Raise a Native, Lou Wolfson had the perfect stallion prospect. By the time Affirmed came to the races, Raise a Native's importance was well established. There was an overwhelming stamp of Harbor View and Raise a Native on the foal crop of 1975. Affirmed was by Raise a Native's young son Exclusive Native and, ironically, Affirmed's great rival, Alydar, was by Raise a Native himself. Also among the brilliant 3-year-olds of 1978 was Sensitive Prince, sired by Raise a Native's classic-winning son Majestic Prince. All three sires held court at Spendthrift. Racehorse people live or die by conformation. In Affirmed, the Wolfsons had the phenotype of the bench mark Thoroughbred. Coupled with his tremendous talent it was almost assured that Affirmed would become legendary.

To me, one of Affirmed's most stunning moments as a racehorse came after his Triple Crown. At Saratoga that August, I remember darting away from our yearling consignment in time to settle under a huge oak on the backside near the far turn to watch Affirmed's comeback in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II). My personal impression was that Sensitive Prince was so far in front that he was coming out of the far turn when Affirmed was just going into it. The official chart verifies that, as late as the "stretch" call, Sensitive Prince was still four lengths on top. Yet, when they came back into my view from behind the tote board, it was the pink and black of Harbor View in front! I jumped four feet. How did Affirmed do it?

A reality for all of us who breed and raise horses is that their life expectancy means we will have to face the day when they pass from personal connection into cherished memory. Over the years, I have had to make some tough phone calls to Lou and Patrice. Then, of course, came the ultimate call, the most sorrowful...the one regarding Affirmed. So, for me, many thoughts came back as the still dignified old chestnut happily grazed at Jonabell in his final minutes. Despite his irreversible malady, veterinary professionalism allowed him at that moment to be pain free, bright of eye, content. The process was completed and the great champion slid gently away--gone, but ever near.

That afternoon, a friend of mine said, "I bet he's up there now saying, 'OK, which one of you hotshots is Man o' War?' "

What a nice thought.