More than 25 years ago, the world of horse racing saw a stallion perform a rare feat, one which has not been accomplished since: win the Triple Crown. This horse was Affirmed.

The Early Years

Affirmed was born on February 21, 1975, at Florida's Harbor View Farm. The chestnut colt was sired by Exclusive Native, one of the most successful and prolific breeding stallions of the time. He was borne by Won't Tell You, an equally qualified broodmare who had herself been raised with the specific intent of being mated with Exclusive Native. It quickly became apparent that patience had paid off: Affirmed soon was recognized as "a super intelligent horse, smart and willing," with unparalleled reserves of skill and strength. Shortly after his second birthday, he was accidentally sent to practice against the much more experienced stakes horse Sparkling Native. Affirmed beat out Native by a neck; when news of this upset filtered back to Harbor View, owner Louis Wolfson realized just what potential laid in the colt's figurative hands.

His racing career began in earnest. He won his first race easily before coming to the Youthful Stakes. Here, he was victorious once more, but not far behind him was the equally prodigious racer Alydar. This race of June 15, 1977 would prove to be the furthest apart they would ever place from each other (conflicting reports have Alydar finishing either in fourth or fifth). Alydar won their next matchup at the Great American Stakes, and the greatest equestrian rivalry of the last half-century was on. They traded wins for the rest of the season, but Affirmed eventually came out on top, garnering the Champion Two-Year-Colt honors after winning the Laurel Futurity. He ended the year with a 7-2-0 record, his only two second-places coming against Alydar. Affirmed went to California with trainer Lazaro Barrera to prepare for the fast-approaching season: his year of eligibility for the Triple Crown.

The Triple Crown

Both Affirmed and Alydar dominated in their first races of the new year, but Alydar was pegged as the marginal favorite going into the Triple Crown's first race, the 1978 Kentucky Derby. (Alydar came from Calumet Farm, which had bred eight previous Derby winners--including the 1948 Crown winner, Citation.) Though various horses held early leads, Affirmed passed Sensitive Prince a half-mile into the race to take the front position for good. Alydar made a valiant effort, but he only managed to finish second, a length and a half behind Affirmed. Affirmed's Louisville victory was accomplished in 2:01.2, the fifth fastest Derby in history. This proved to be the dullest of 1978's Triple Crown races.

Two weeks later, on May 20, the Preakness Stakes showcased the second match to record-breaking crowds. Affirmed quickly took the lead after longshot Track Reward fell behind. Then Alydar came upon the horse once again. This time, it was not too late, as he caught up with Affirmed and gave him a run for his money all along the home stretch. Yet Affirmed (and jockey Steve Cauthen, only 18 at the time) managed to pull it out, winning by a neck in 1:54.4. This time, the second-fastest in Preakness history, was also the same as the winning time of 1977 Crown winner Seattle Slew. Never before had two consecutive years each seen a Triple Crown winner. Would this be the one?

65,000 people headed to Elmont, New York three weeks later to find out at the Belmont Stakes. A mere five horses were at the gates for this race, setting the stage perfectly for an Affirmed-Alydar nailbiter. And the two delivered, quickly taking first and second a half-mile into the race. A mile later, the two were neck-and-neck, enrapturing many onlookers who by then had no favorite, but "simply had been overwhelmed by the beauty of the struggle." The two remained in tandem as they rounded the final curve and headed down the home stretch. Alydar took a small lead at the eighth pole, but Affirmed used every last available iota of his abilty and burst in front, winning the race by a head. Affirmed had become the eleventh winner of the Triple Crown.

Denouement and Retirement

Affirmed and Alydar squared off for the final time at the Travers Stakes later that year. Affirmed ended the race in first, but was anticlimatically given second due to a penalty for interfering with Alydar, who was then named the winner. Nevertheless, Affirmed was announced Horse of the Year for 1978. Affirmed began his fourth-year season with some poor performances, but ended with six consecutive wins to become (at the time) thoroughbred racing's only horse with winnings of more than $2,000,000--and, of course, to earn a second Horse of the Year award. He finished his racing career with a 22-5-1 record, out of 29 starts.

In 1980, Affirmed moved to Spendthrift Farm, where he began a highly successful breeding career. His descendants eventually included in their ranks 12 racing champions, 77 stakes winners, and the earners of over $40,762,855. This was the same year he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Later, Affirmed was moved to Calumet Farm (where he occupied a paddock adjoining that of, ironically, Alydar) and in 1992 to Jonabell Farm.

At the age of 26, musculoskeletal problems caused by old age became too painful for Affirmed to continue to live a healthy life, so he was humanely put to sleep on January 12, 2001. One of the finest horses in modern racing history, Affirmed's intelligence, gentleness, and equestrian superiority, even when compared among the horses that compose the elite group of Triple Crown champions, sharply stand out.

Sources:
http://espn.go.com/horse/ftboa/2003/0519/1556379.html
http://www.thoroughbredtimes.com/tc99/history/winners/affirmed/default.asp
http://tcm.bloodhorse.com/affirmed.asp

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