He came along at the tail end of a glorious run in American horseracing, an era that included Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Perhaps this is why the accomplishments of Affirmed don’t seem to garner as much attention as those of his peers. Yet, Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner and also was involved in one of horseracing’s greatest rivalries.
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Affirmed began life on Harbor View farm in Florida where he was bred by Louis E. Wolfson. The expectations for the colt were understandably high from the beginning; he came from the highly regarded bloodline of Raise a Native. His sire, Exclusive Native, would also sire Genuine Risk, a filly that scored a win in the Kentucky Derby.
His two-year-old season saw Affirmed paired with young jockey Steve Cauthen who was being hailed as a star in his own right. Cauthen was still a teenager himself when he took up the reins of Affirmed. The two were a perfect match. In his two-year-old year Affirmed won seven of his nine races and earned an astounding $343, 477 in purses. He also encountered for the first time a horse that would become his greatest rival—Alydar. Affirmed and Alydar met six times in 1977. Affirmed prevailed in four of the meetings while Alydar won two, putting a blemish on an otherwise perfect record.
The two were on a collision course that would play out the following year in the Triple Crown series. The Kentucky Derby approached and on race day the betting public made Alydar the favorite at 6-5. Staying just off the pace in the early stages of the race, Affirmed began to close on the leaders in the final turn and held off a fast-closing Alydar in deep stretch to secure victory and extend his lead in the horses’ series. In the Preakness stakes the young Cauthen sent Affirmed to the lead where he controlled the pace throughout the entire affair. In the Belmont Stakes many questioned the riding tactics of Alydar’s jockey, Jorge Velasquez, who allowed Affirmed to establish a very slow pace in the opening stages of the 1 ½ mile contest. The energy Affirmed saved in the early stages allowed him to save his energy for the stretch run and somehow managed to defeat Alydar by a nose to claim the Triple Crown.
The rivals would meet once more in 1978 in the Travers Stakes. Laffit Pincay, Jr. filled in for an injured Steve Cauthen as Affirmed’s jockey. As he horses entered the stretch Pincay cut off Alydar and caused the horse’s jockey to check. As a result, Affirmed was disqualified and placed in second place behind Alydar. It would be their final meeting with Affirmed having won the series 7-3.
Unlike many racing champions of today, including American Pharoah, Affirmed did not retire after his three-year-old year and continued racing in 1979 with a campaign that included wins in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was named the Horse of the Year and also Champion Older Male by winning seven of his nine starts.
After his racing career was over the syndication deal that sent Affirmed to stud was worth $14.4 million, a record at that time. His performance as a stallion was impressive; Affirmed sired over 80 stakes winners and 9 champions. The horses sired by Affirmed have earned in excess of $44 billion dollars in purse money through 2004.
One of the greatest health risks faced by a thoroughbred horse is laminitis, a disease that affects the circulation of the hoof. Affirmed had to be humanely destroyed after falling victim to laminitis in 2001. In a rare act of respect, the entire body of Affirmed was buried at Jonabell Farm. In most cases only the head, heart, and hooves of a thoroughbred champion are interred.
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