Sports historian Sahadi (One Sunday in December: The 1958 NFL Championship Game and How It Changed Professional Football, 2008, etc.) tells the story of Affirmed’s 1978 Triple Crown triumph.
“The decade of the seventies,” writes the author, “was the golden age of thoroughbred racing,” as incomparable horses such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Riva Ridge strutted their stuff on America’s racing turf. But no horse captured the imagination of race fans, and the general public, as did Affirmed, and his rivalry with Alydar” “It was Ali-Frazier, Palmer-Nicklaus, and McEnroe-Connors, right there with them.” The rise of Affirmed brought together an unlikely collection of characters. There was millionaire owner Louis Wolfson, who nine years earlier had been imprisoned—unjustly, contends Sahadi—for a white-collar crime; colorful and wise trainer Laz Barrera, who had emigrated from Castro’s Cuba to Mexico and then arrived almost penniless in California and jockey superstar Steve Cauthen. Riding since he could walk, his string of victories in 1977, at the tender age of 17, made Cauthen a national celebrity, appearing on The Tonight Show and a Wheaties box and, of course, recording an album. As 2-year-olds in 1977, Affirmed and Alydar established their own notoriety. In six meetings, Affirmed won four times, but all by a small margin. As the 1978 Triple Crown season arrived, it was anybody’s guess who among the two might emerge triumphant. While Affirmed did win each race, each time it was only by the slimmest of margins. Affirmed had established his greatness, but he had been pushed all the way by the challenge of Alydar. Sahadi ably captures the atmosphere of the horse-racing world and the characters surrounding Affirmed, although a tendency toward hagiography (Wolfson is “a distinguished man of letters with a decorous and noble appearance”) and repetition (Cauthen is too often described as “fuzzy cheeked”) occasionally bogs down the narrative.
Engaging history of perhaps horse-racing’s finest moment.