Many of us remember world events by where we were and what we were doing. Time stood still when my fifth-grade class was told of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, just as it did a couple of years earlier when the entire school population crowded into the gymnasium early one morning to watch a flickering black-and-white television showing the launch of America's first man into space.
I wasn't around to hear announcer Russ Hodges' dramatic call of Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" ("The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"), but no baseball fan of the early 1950s will ever forget his home run that beat the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Neither was I one of the 65,417 at Belmont Park on June 10, 1978, to witness what arguably was the greatest duel in the history of Thoroughbred racing, when Affirmed and Alydar hooked up in the 110th running of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Not being there didn't prevent the race from being one of those moments that are frozen in time.
In 1978, my interest in Thoroughbred racing was only a passing one. I edited and for a time was ghostwriter of a syndicated newspaper column for Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, and since racing was part of his beat, I felt an obligation to pay some attention to it.
I spent most of that afternoon at Wrigley Field in Chicago, watching the Cubs lose to San Diego and slip out of first place. The game ended a few minutes before post time for the Belmont and I rushed out to find the nearest watering hole with a television tuned in to the race. I slid onto a barstool just as the horses were loading into the gate and for the next 2 1/2 minutes was absolutely mesmerized by the image on the screen. Alydar, lurking just off Affirmed's flank, looked as if he would rumble to the lead whenever he wanted to. Affirmed fought off his rival again and again with an enormous and rare display of courage and talent. Like the great ones in any sport, he refused to be defeated.
With his performance, Affirmed converted me from casual to committed fan.
As luck would have it, the publishing company I worked for moved from Chicago to the Los Angeles area, right around the time Affirmed was beginning his 4-year-old campaign in Southern California. This was an opportunity to see a Triple Crown champion up close and personal, and I didn't miss a chance to follow his every move at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. I suffered through Affirmed's losses in the Malibu Stakes (gr. II) and San Fernando Stakes (gr. II), but felt vindicated when he cruised home by 10 lengths to win the Strub Stakes (gr. I).
Next came a brilliant effort under 128 pounds in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), where Affirmed set a new track record of 1:58 3/5 for 1 1/4 miles. Conditions of the Californian Stakes (gr. I) at Hollywood Park required Affirmed to carry 130, but he won with ease, then was assigned 132 pounds for the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I).
While the Belmont was the signature piece of Affirmed's
3-year-old season, the Gold Cup was a defining moment of the Harbor View Farm runner's second consecutive Horse of the Year campaign. Under a weight that would have staggered most horses, Affirmed thrived--battling the entire 1 1/4 miles against the talented European import, Sirlad, and edging away to a three-quarter-length victory in 1:58 2/5, just one-fifth off the track record.
If Affirmed's Belmont turned me into a committed fan, the Gold Cup sealed the deal. Soon thereafter, I sought out and got a job with Daily Racing Form in Los Angeles. That put me in the Thoroughbred industry full-time, and, eventually, led to my association with this publication.
News of Affirmed's death on Jan. 12 reminded me just how much one horse can elicit emotions that change your life.