Affirmed’s Belmont a Life-Changing Experience
Thirty-five years ago, on June 10, 1978, I walked from my Rogers Park apartment on Chicago’s North Side to the neighborhood L stop for a quick ride to Wrigley Field and an afternoon contest between the Cubs and San Diego Padres. I don’t remember much about the game. The box score says 39-year-old veteran Gaylord Perry pitched for the Padres, Dave Winfield hit a couple of home runs for the visitors, Dave Kingman blasted one out for the Cubs, and the home team lost 10-8. I assume the wind was blowing out.
But I distinctly remember what happened at the end of the two-hour and 52-minute game that drew a big crowd because it was only June and the Cubs had a winning record, giving North Siders hope that this would be their year.
Post time for the Belmont Stakes was coming up in just a few minutes, and when the Cubs had their last futile at bat against reliever Rollie Fingers, I made a mad dash for the exits and the nearest watering hole on the corner of Clark and Addison.
The bar’s television was tuned into WGN’s 10th Inning show and, Triple Crown on the line or not, the bartender wasn’t willing to change it over to CBS for a horse race. Same thing next door, but the third place – empty except for the man behind the bar – had a flickering black-and-white TV perched up in the corner and the image of horses loading into the starting gate at Belmont Park.
At that point in my life – I was 24 and had lived in Chicago for four years – I’d never been to a racetrack. I grew up in a small farming town in northern Illinois and the closest I’d ever been to a horse race was during childhood at an annual Lithuanian reunion in Spring Valley, Ill., on Kentucky Derby day. Everyone would crowd into George and Ann Laugal’s tavern late in the afternoon and make their bets and watch the television behind the bar and cheer their horses on. Yes, there was gambling, though I don’t remember any pari-mutuel windows.
After giving up on my dream of a career in professional golf I lucked into a job in 1975 at the Field Newspaper Syndicate, which at that time was part of the Chicago Sun-Times/Daily News owned by the heirs of Marshall Field. It was a wonderful time to be part of the newspaper world, and I figured I learned a skill that would guarantee me a job for life when I was trained to operate a Telex machine. Before long, I was working with a very skilled group of editors, proofing or editing copy for syndicated writers like political columnists Joseph Kraft, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, and Charles Bartlett, labor writer Victor Riesel, Broadway gossip columnist Earl Wilson, financial guru Sylvia Porter, self-help legend Ann Landers, and others. It was a stimulating environment.
And then there was Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, the odds-making pioneer and NFL pundit who wrote a thrice weekly column. Of course, Jimmy couldn’t write a complete sentence and had ghostwriters – ESPN’s Hank Goldberg and CHRB commissioner David Israel among them – author his material. The other editors were all too happy to hand this one over to me as soon as possible; because the ghostwriters had a hard time getting ahold of Jimmy, copy was often late, causing missed trains (or happy hours) and ruining family dinners.
Working on that column beginning in 1977 (and eventually having my own short-lived stint as a ghostwriter for The Greek) exposed me to Thoroughbred racing for the first time. It was a sport I found fascinating, challenging and intimidating all at once.
That winter and the next spring, based mostly on what I’d read and heard, I became an Alydar fan (after briefly flirting with the Woody Stephens-trained Believe It). I really don’t remember much about the Derby or Preakness but was somehow convinced that Alydar was an unlucky loser on both occasions. The Belmont would be his day of revenge.
And so as the bartender and I watched those two horses race around Belmont Park, hip to hip for most of that magical mile and a half journey, the little red horse, Affirmed, reached out and grabbed me in ways I couldn’t put into words then and can’t do justice to now. I pounded the bar as Alydar appeared to poke his head in front at midstretch, but Affirmed fought back with an amazing demonstration of courage unlike anything I’d ever seen a human athlete do.
In less than two and a half minutes I was captivated by this special horse, and sold on the sport. I soon became a weekend regular at Arlington Park and Hawthorne, was reading handicapping books by Tom Ainslie, and could set my clock to when the trucks dropped off the Daily Racing Forms at the Glenwood L Station.
A year later (after the most brutal winter in Chicago history), the newspaper syndicate relocated to Southern California and I had the great fortune to see Affirmed in the flesh on several occasions. The most memorable was his victory over Italian champion Sirlad in the Hollywood Gold Cup, where he covered a mile and a quarter in 1:58 2/5 under a staggering 132 pounds. It ranks as one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.
In September 1980, the Daily Racing Form’s West Coast edition advertised an opening for a Telex operator at their Los Angeles office. It was a cut in pay and prestige but it was where I wanted to be. I applied for the position and got the job. After a few months I shifted over to the editing and handicapping desk, where I stayed until 1988, when I relocated to Lexington, Ky., to take a position with Thoroughbred Times and later Blood-Horse magazine. In a roundabout way, that Telex skill did give me lifetime employment.
So on Belmont day, wherever I am and whatever is at stake in that year’s Triple Crown, I think of the June afternoon back in 1978 when a horse changed my life.