Commentary

Affirmed-Alydar rivalry marked end of an epoch

Updated: May 29, 2008, 6:57 PM ET
By Paul Moran | Special to ESPN.com

Affirmed vs. Alydar
Horsephotos.comAffirmed defeated Alydar 30 years ago to become the 11th Triple Crown winner.
The events that made the headlines of 1978 in many ways live still in the collective American consciousness.

Israeli forces invade Lebanon.

The first computer bulletin board system is created in Chicago.

Resorts International, the first legal casino in the eastern United States, opens in Atlantic City.

The People's Republic of China lifts a ban on works by Aristotle, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.

A bomb explodes outside the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, Australia, killing a policeman and several others.

Coastal Road Massacre: Palestinian terrorists kill 34 Israelis.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter decides to postpone production of the neutron bomb -- a weapon which kills people with radiation but leaves buildings intact.

The Blues Brothers make their debut appearance on Saturday Night Live.

Afghanistan President Daoud Khan is killed during a military coup.

Bruce Springsteen releases Darkness at the Edge of Town.

Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds gets his 3,000th major league hit.

These things happened in 1978 before June 10, the day on which Affirmed beat Alydar in the Belmont Stakes and became the 11th winner of the Triple Crown.

The last was also the greatest, the most intense and hair-raising of Triple Crowns, unlike any of the others. The first 10 Triple Crown winners were dominant. Affirmed prevailed over a colt that was very close to being his equal, and rose to the occasion three times with the Belmont defining the most intense rivalry -- the only real rivalry -- in Triple Crown history, one that would send both conjoined into legend.

It may not have been immediately apparent, or apparent at all until a decade, another and yet another passed without the emergence of a Triple Crown winner, but the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry marked the end of an epoch.

Affirmed raced beneath the pink, white and black silks of Harbor View Farm, where he was bred by Louis and Patrice Wolfson. Alydar was a product of Calumet Farm, then owned by Admiral and Mrs. Eugene Markey, who in their declining years maintained the traditions established in the 1930s and '40s by Warren Wright.

Sir Barton and Seattle Slew, raced by owners who were not the breeders, are the exceptions among winners of the Triple Crown.

Gallant Fox and Omaha (Belair Stud), Whirlaway and Citation (Calumet), War Admiral (Glen Riddle Farm and Samuel Riddle), Count Fleet (Mrs. John D. Hertz), Assault (King Ranch) and Secretariat (Meadow Stud) ran in the colors of people who bred horses to race in a time when this was an endeavor dominated by families with roots in the sport as deep as their pockets. Thirty years after the last Triple Crown winner, the private, family-owned breeding and racing operation is almost extinct.

In the quest for stout long-winded horses, Warren Wright traveled to England to buy mares and matched them with Blenheim II, who sired Whirlaway from the Sweep mare Dust Whirl, and Bull Lea, whose mating with the Hyperion mare, Hydroplane II, resulted in Citation.

Whirlaway started 60 times and, at age 3, ran in the Blue Grass on April 24, the Derby Trial on the 29th, the Kentucky Derby on May 3, the Preakness on the 10th, an allowance race at Belmont on the 20th and the Belmont Stakes on June 7.

Despite missing the entire 1949 season, Citation started 45 times and, in the spring of 1948, having been given a breather in March, ran in the Chesapeake Trial at Havre de Grace, in Maryland, on April 12, the Chesapeake Stakes on the 17th, the Derby Trial on the 27th, the Kentucky Derby on May 1, the Preakness on the 15th, the Jersey Derby at Garden State Park on the 29th and the Belmont Stakes on June 12.

The American thoroughbred has turned 180 degrees in the last 30 years.

Most agree that Big Brown is sufficiently armed to win the first Triple Crown in 30 years. The Belmont Stakes will be his sixth career start and there is no guarantee of a seventh. Michael Iavarone, of IEAH Stable, said recently that Big Brown will remain in training if he comes out of the Belmont 100 percent. Considering the less than pristine condition of his left-fore hoof, Big Brown will go into the Belmont at less than 100 percent and may never again be seen under tack.

He may be the quintessential example of the modern thoroughbred, a watershed of 30 years of impudent if commercially attractive breeding -- the intensely inbred thoroughbred: Huge, powerful, fast and delicate as lace.

What Affirmed and Alydar brought to the table 30 years ago, the late Woody Stephens once said, "Cannot be bought or manufactured ... the greatest show in racing."

By the time the Triple Crown of 1978 was over, the most celebrated rivals in racing history had run against one another more times than Big Brown will likely have raced on the day he is retired.

Explain to me how this is better.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.

• Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award among several other industry honors. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby.
• You can email him at pmoran1686@aol.com