Everyone remembers the march Affirmed made through the Triple Crown, and his incredible rivalry with Alydar. Surely it was the hardest fought series of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont ever run, and evaluating the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry as the best in the history of American racing is questioned by few. But every year at this time I remember the 1978 Triple Crown champion for another reason. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since Affirmed returned to the races for the first time since winning that epic battle over his excellent rival, becoming the eleventh horse to sweep all three legs of the Triple Crown. On a Tuesday afternoon at Saratoga, a long time ago, the great Affirmed needed to find something deep within that only a few horses in history possessed.
The 1978 Jim Dandy was of more importance than most years. The world was watching because of Affirmed. The gutsy, copper colored chestnut had thrilled the nation more each time than the previous, as he once, twice, and three times broke the collective heart of Alydar and all of his supporters. Affirmed was talented, yes, but he was more than that. The heart the Laz Barrera trainee displayed in winning each leg of the Triple Crown was something that anyone and everyone could admire. When he arrived to Saratoga, he was a racing megastar.
Unbeaten in all seven starts already that year, and with the sport’s poster boy, Steve Cauthen, in the saddle, the Jim Dandy was to be a foregone conclusion. Only four other horses would dare challenge the mighty Affirmed, and frankly, it was not a stellar bunch. That is, save for one brave colt named Sensitive Prince.
The son of the champion Majestic Prince had seen his own perfect record come to an end at the hands of Affirmed on the first Saturday in May. Compromised by an outside post position and fast early fractions, the speedy colt had faded to sixth in the Kentucky Derby. Still, as his impressive wins in the Hutcheson and Fountain of Youth would attest, he was far from a pushover. Then there was his trainer.
There was good reason why Allen Jerkens was known as the ‘Giant Killer’. Five years earlier, he had orchestrated the upset of upsets this same time of year at Saratoga, sending out the unheralded Onion to defeat the great Secretariat in the Whitney Handicap. Now he had another runner capable of a big upset.
For the Jim Dandy, Jerkens’ colt was coming into the race the right way. He was working up a storm before his second try with Affirmed, and now had the services and the big-race winning skill of rider, Jacinto Vasquez. Still when the field of five entered the starting gate at the ‘graveyard of champions’, Affirmed was pounded down to a prohibitive 1-20.
As each furlong went by in the Jim Dandy, the Saratoga crowd began to realize that the champ was in trouble. With Sensitive Prince and Vasquez winging on the lead, it was looking like Affirmed was left with too much to do. He was chasing in second, but he did not have the early get up and go on this day to stay close with the strong early fractions set down by his talented challenger. A nearly ten-length lead on the backstretch was still four lengths in mid-stretch. It certainly looked like Jerkens was about to pull off another shocker of a recent Triple Crown winner.
Of course, Affirmed was not the type to give up. Although it appeared it was not going to be his day for more than a mile, he started digging down inside the eighth pole. With a margin that still seemed hopeless at the sixteenth pole, Affirmed did what only champions do. Refusing to lose, the great champion came with an irresistible rush and snatched victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat in the last few yards.
It was a comeback for the ages, and Affirmed was once more the toast of the racing world. It was a performance not often talked about these days, but it was the one in which his trainer calls his career best. Showing that his near miss was no fluke, Sensitive Prince would go on to win five of his next six starts, including four graded stakes. Of course, he would never beat Affirmed. He was a major talent, and on this afternoon at the Spa he was in receipt of nine pounds from the big horse.
Sensitive Prince ran the nine furlongs that day in under 1:48 against Affirmed who was only using the Jim Dandy as a prep for another showdown against Alydar, in the Travers. The great chestnut of Harbor View Farm never should have won, but he did, and because of this, the 1978 Jim Dandy is a race that I will never forget.
Photo of Affirmed and Alydar courtesy of NYRA