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Some years fade over time. Some events slip from memory, replaced by fresh thrills and new dramas.
But 1978 and the Triple Crown duel between Affirmed and Alydar grow brighter and more unforgettable every year.
It was tremendous theater at the time. Alydar, a stalker, came from the back of the pack to challenge Affirmed before losing the Kentucky Derby by a length and a half. In the Preakness Stakes three weeks later, Affirmed held off a hard-charging Alydar by less than half a length. And finally in the Belmont Stakes, running neck and neck for the final seven furlongs and taking turns at the lead, they went to the wire, where Affirmed won by a nose.
I'm no horse racing fan, but I was captivated in 1978. Everyone was. I remember maybe a dozen men at the liquor store down the block from where I lived huddled together watching the Preakness on a small black-and-white TV behind the counter and yelling as Alydar came strong down the stretch. I remember my mother, who had never been to the track in her life, deciding to host a Belmont party at our house, complete with big hats and tall drinks. I remember Walter Cronkite telling me all about the horses and their riders on the evening news. When you watched these horses run you were taking part in a phenomenon, you were tapped into a movement.
Affirmed and Alydar gave us an intoxicating dose of pure, unrelenting competition. Over the course of three races, in less than 10 total minutes, each of them was challenged and each of them dug down for untapped reserves of strength and determination. It didn't matter that they were horses and not athletes; for six weeks in the early summer of 1978 they were the essence of sport. They were answers to the fundamental questions: How far can you reach? How fast can you go? How much pressure can you stand? How much heart can you muster?
There were other great moments in 1978. Leon Spinks, toothless grin and all, took down Muhammad Ali in a shocker. An upstart Duke team (that's right kids, in the old days Duke was the underdog) challenged mighty Kentucky for the NCAA basketball championship. An unlikely Seattle SuperSonics team fell in seven close games to the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals. The Oakland Raiders' Kenny Stabler holy-rolled a ball to Pete Banaszak, who scooped it to Dave Casper for the winning touchdown in a wild late-season game against the San Diego Chargers. And little man Bucky Dent hit a ball over the Green Monster in a one-game playoff against the Red Sox to put the Yankees on the road to a World Series title.
But none of these events rose to the level of Affirmed versus Alydar. They were fluky and fun, charming but not significant. Affirmed versus Alydar was epic; two competitors at the height of their form going head-to-head. Even as it unfolded it felt as though it belonged to another time, as though it were part of some legendary chronology that included foes like Russell and Chamberlain and Ali and Frazier, and would come to include those like Borg and McEnroe and Brady and Manning. It stood out against the backdrop of the rest of the year in sports and took on added significance because it felt so singular, splendid and rare in 1978.
|Affirmed and Alydar certainly weren't separated by much.|
And beyond the world of horse racing their races have, with each passing year, become a touchstone of the whole idea of real rivalry and true drama. When we say we wish someone would challenge Tiger Woods, we are saying we long for what it was like when Alydar gave Affirmed everything he had. When we hoped all season long last year that the Patriots would be locked in a tight battle, having to prove they were not only gifted but gritty, we were remembering what it was like when those two horses were center stage.
There have been captivating boxing matches since 1978 (Leonard-Hearns, Hearns-Hagler, Bowe-Holyfield, Vazquez-Marquez, etc.). There have been outstanding and dramatic World Series played since 1978 (1986, 1991, 2001 and 2002, for example). There have been great Super Bowls (XIII, XXIII, XXV, XXXIV, XXXVI, XLII). There have been legendary NBA Finals matchups (1980, 1984, 1985, 1993, 1998). There has been Tiger where once there were Jack and Tom. There have been Andre, Pete, Roger and now Rafa, where once there were Connors, Borg and McEnroe. Sport renews itself. Time passes. One year, no matter how exciting, is more or less as memorable as another.
But in horse racing, it's worth remembering, time has stopped. Then, now and still, there is only Affirmed versus Alydar.
And that means whatever sport you love, if you're a fan, on some level, there is only 1978.