Affirmed’s Belmont a Life-Changing Experience

by | 06.09.2016 | 7:25am
Affirmed and Alydar battle to the wire in the 1978 Belmont, the last time the Triple Crown was captured

(The following was originally published in 2013 and published again by special request.)

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.

  • Evelyn Waugh

    Nice piece, Mr. Paulick. Those were the days.

  • Captain47

    I also wanted Alydar to take the Belmont that year. I think it was the braids in Affirmed’s mane that I didn’t like because, as a racehorse, he really was spectacular. I remember watching my first Kentucky Derby in 1977 at my grandma’s house near Ford City (those from Chicago know the area). I picked Run Dusty Run, who ran second. By 1978, I was just 10 years old and living in Indiana, having moved from the Chicagoland area. My pick in the Derby that year was Esops Foibles for some reason. After that race, I moved my Triple Crown allegiance to Alydar.

  • Graustark

    You made the fortunate, and correct, career decisions, Ray.

  • Harris Factor

    Terrific nostalgia piece. I loved it (and Affirmed, as well).

    And, if really you took your early handicapping lessons by reading Tom Ainslie you should have done well at the windows in subsequent years because you learned from the best. As good as Davidowitz, Beyer and several others of recent vintage may be as handicappers/turf writers, they all are no better than second to Ainslie.

  • Ed Brockman

    Very good piece Ray. It takes me back to my own initiation to this addiction, which was as a hot walker at a county fair meet in Minnesota at the ripe old age of 12.

  • HappyHarriett

    Oh that’s a great piece, Mr. Paulick. I followed you from pen to paddock as if I were the Ray of yesteryear. At the end, I had tears in my eyes. The dates, times, places differ, I’m sure, but every lover of horses has walked in the same pair of emotional shoes. Thank you!

    And Mr. Paulick, I’m going to see Turkoman on Tuesday. He’s 31, and as you know, a son of Alydar. I’m so excited and I’m bringing him 10 pounds of soft horse cookies and some thin sliced carrots, per Marguerite. I also help sponsor our dear one, Promethia, also 31, and a daughter of Alydar.

    HappyHarriet (your system won’t let me log in)

  • Tom G

    And who could forget that kid, Steve Cauthen!

  • Tinky

    Well recounted – thanks.

    (Never knew that we were in such close physical proximity in those days…)

  • Chip Ward

    Ray, that was the first Belmont I ever attended in person, driving from SC to NY and staying with a college buddy in the city. I too was convinced it was the regal Alydar’s and Calumet’s turn. Standing some 20 ft from the rail about 50 yds from the finish line, what I remember most is the incredible din the roaring crowd produced as those two battled down the stretch, neither giving any quarter to the other. As they passed me, I knew the Affirmed was not going to let him go by and my heat sank. Yet I was filled with excitement at having witnessed first hand perhaps the greatest Triple Crown Classic ever run. A fan to this day in Lexington.

  • azeri1

    I remember that day well. I was on my knees in front of the TV screaming for all it was worth as those two horses battled it out head for head for the third time. I have always had a soft spot for Alydar as I often think what a difference a different birth year would have made for him in the world of horse racing. But he gave us those great head to head memories and in his own right had a great career winning both the Travers and the Whitney. It was a shame that a horse who gave his all died under such horrible circumstances. Again, greed ruled over humanity and stewardship.
    Great memories, thank you!

  • mike g rutherford

    Affirmed was my all time favorite colt to ever race, Affirmed was talented , smart and battle ready. I owned his full sister, She Won’t Tell, and she was also eaten up with talent. She foaled Senior Pete, who won the grade I futurity (NY) and foal many other exciting babies. She is buried with honor at Manchester Farm. I was out in California when Laz was getting Affirmed ready for his Derby and after seeing him train I knew nobody would beat him in the Derby. Laz ask him for his life every day and he just got tougher and better. We do not have trainers today that put a bottom on horses like Laz did. I will never forget the Preakness race that year as going down the stretch Affirmed had one ear on Alydar and his other ear forward
    knowing He could take Aydar any time and he did. In Affirmed’s 4 year old year he got real smart and a little lazy and again Laz after Affirmed lost to Radar Ahead he put Pincay on him for a “mile” work and the very strong Pincay used the whip on him every stride as per his instructions. He came out of that work very woke up to say the least. How many trainer’s today work their horse a mile before a race? Affirmed in the next race set a track record at one mile and a quarter. Affirmed was the best and would have looked Secretariat in the eye and nailed him too. Mike g Rutherford

    • Kris

      I agree with you wholeheartedly. Affirmed was a tired horse after the TC and it’s a shame that Laz did not recognize this and give Affirmed some time off. Affirmed on his day (which was most of his days) could run with any racehorse that has ever lived.

  • mike g rutherford

    NUMBER ONE 1. Affirmed 2.Spectacular Bid 3. Seattle Slew 3. Alydar 4. Sunday Silence 5. Secretariat 6. Easy Goer 7. Risen Star 8. Alysheba 9.Cigar 10. Real Quite. It’s great to have an opinion! No two people would look at the ratings the same, thats why horse racing is so wonderful. Spectacular Bid was the greatest horse to not win the triple crown.

  • Dave Lengel

    I was on the rail at the 1/8th pole. I was 21 at the time. We drove 3 hrs to get there at like 7:00AM so as we could rush in and get a spot on the rail. I was a budding race fan at the time. I was also an Affirmed fan. When they hooked up on the backstretch and ran as a team to the wire the frenzy of the crowd just got louder and louder as they raced as a team to the wire. When they passed us at the 1/8 pole Alydar absolutely was in front by inches. They hit the wire and nobody out front had a clue who had actually won. There were no big screens back then and the crowd roar was deafening , so there was no way you could hear the announcers call. It was to this day the most amazing race or even sporting event I have ever attended. Needless to say, I was hooked for life at that point. It was incredible!

  • 4Bellwether666

    Bit the hell out of you!!!…

  • larry odyniec

    Thanks for your account, Ray. My memory of that race: I had witnessed Affirmed’s 1st two Triple Crown victories in person and surely wasn’t going to miss the 3rd…as the race proceeding the Belmont concluded, I bought two giant beers and staked my claim to a spot on the rail in the 5th floor grandstand…when those two great horses came thundering down the stretch as one, I have never heard nor do I ever expect to hear a roar as I heard that day…an experience I will never forget!

  • Dcapper

    Hi Ray, I really enjoyed your article on Affirmed. Back in 1978 I attended my first Kentucky Derby. Since then, I have been to all of them, 35 in a row. That amazing little golden horse had heart and stamina that never failed when running down his rival’s. Back in 1980, I was very fortunate to visit Spendthrift Farm where he was retired to stud. They had him turned out, running full bore, in his enclosure. I don’t have to tell you how great it was to see a champion stallion running without tack or saddle, and then, stopping in front of us for our acknowledgement. Since then, being bit by the racing bug myself, we purchased our first racehorse. This past week at Churchill Downs, we won a race as new owner’s. I guess, in my case, the old saying of “what goes around, comes around” has applied to me. Thanks to Affirmed!

  • JasperAxel

    As a casual fan most of my life, mostly watching the TC and BC, the light went on for me watching Rachel Alexandra in the Oaks. I continued to watch her demolish the best 3yo males and females with ease, knowing I was watching history. When the decision was made to run her against older males, I knew I had to be there. I drove 16 hours to Saratoga Springs to watch her do the unheard of in current American racing. To watch her repel challenge after challenge, and lay it all on the line, I realized how much grit and courage she really had. It absolutely gutted her, but she was not going to lose. I realized that I got to witness true greatness, and I continue searching for that every day while I follow horseracing in every way imaginable. I am thankful that I got to see Goldikova, Zenyatta, Frankel, and Black Caviar. I regret that I missed Cigar, Skip Away, Giants Causeway, and countless others that I could have followed. I hope I get a chance to follow the sport and bear witness to more legendary horses to come. They do it all for hay, oats, and peppermints, not endorsement deals and millions. Horses are the most honest sports heroes in the world. I am lucky to call myself a fan.

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