His name lives on in countless stories that spill out every year at this time. But as the decades roll along, he becomes more and more an abstraction — shorthand for what others have not done in the 37 years since he ruled.
His greatest accomplishment, the Triple Crown, has only grown in stature as a dozen brilliant 3-year-olds have tried — and failed — to match him on the dirt at Belmont Park.
Yet Affirmed is little more than a line in history for many of the 90,000 racing fans who will pack the track Saturday to watch American Pharoah make the next attempt.
Affirmed hasn't been celebrated on the silver screen like Secretariat or headlined a No. 1 best-seller like Seabiscuit. When his story is told, he's invariably paired with Alydar, his antagonist in the greatest thoroughbred rivalry of modern times.
Even in the years when he was the nation's best 2-year-old, then its best 3-year-old and finally its best 4-year-old, Affirmed was an underestimated character. He looked feminine to many observers, especially contrasted with the strapping beast Alydar. He didn't enter Triple Crown season undefeated like Seattle Slew or deliver an indelible beatdown on par with Secretariat's 31-length victory at Belmont. He even went through a five-race slump from the summer of 1978 into the beginning of 1979, practically unprecedented for a horse of his quality.
But make no mistake — Affirmed was remarkable.
"I really realized it the second time I rode him," says Steve Cauthen, an 18-year-old national sensation at the time he piloted Affirmed to the Triple Crown. "We were coming down the stretch, and Alydar came up to challenge me. We accelerated like two rockets. It was the first time I had ever felt that on a horse."
When seasoned racing observers let their minds drift back to Affirmed, they usually say two things: He was as smart a thoroughbred as they ever encountered and as tough an in-race fighter as they ever saw.
Dan Rosenberg helped raise Alydar from a foal as the assistant manager at Calumet Farm in Kentucky. So he had a strong rooting interest in believing Affirmed was beatable.
"Any other year, Alydar would've won the Triple Crown," Rosenberg says. "But people are wrong to assume the fastest horse always wins. Sometimes, it's the one who can look the other in the eye and say, 'You're not passing me.' I think Affirmed had a little bit more of that quality."
His unusual awareness allowed him to make multiple moves in the same race. He liked to run on or near the lead. But he excelled at conserving energy and then summoning another burst when a rival challenged. It was this quality that gave him a consistent advantage over Alydar, who usually offered one big push per race.
If Affirmed lacked historically brilliant speed, he made up for it by being good at every aspect of racing.
"I remember I asked [Hall of Fame trainer] Charlie Whittingham about him, and Charlie said the perfect thing," recalls longtime turf writer William Nack. "He said he was neat as a pin. And that's right. There wasn't a hair misplaced on that horse. He had style. He had class. He was always game."
An unmatched rivalry
Affirmed was born at Harbor View Farm in Ocala, Fla., and Cuban-born trainer Laz Barrera wasted little time with him, saddling the colt for his first race in May 1977, just three months after he turned 2.
He won that one and seven of the nine he ran as a 2-year-old. His only losses came to the horse with whom he'd be forever linked.
It's staggering to look back at the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry through the lens of our current racing era, when top 3-year-olds often avoid one another until the Kentucky Derby. These two squared off six times as 2-year-olds, chasing each other from New York to California to Maryland. Affirmed took four, including the season-capping Laurel Futurity.
But they didn't truly captivate the public until the following spring.
Alydar stirred the passions of racing traditionalists. He was a powerfully built chestnut akin to Secretariat and was celebrated as perhaps the last great star from one of the sport's most famous farms — Calumet.
"He was the resurrection of a dynasty — this big, strapping chestnut thing who looked like your perfect idea of a racehorse," recalls University of Louisville professor Tim Capps, who wrote a book about the rivalry. "You saw Affirmed stand next to him and he looked like what he was, just a medium-sized, well-muscled horse."
Alydar won his Derby prep races by commanding margins and went off as a 6-5 favorite at Churchill Downs, despite Affirmed's previous success against him.
But their dynamic was what it was. Affirmed took the lead in Kentucky and Alydar, for all his majesty and acceleration, never could quite pass him. He drew a little closer two weeks later at the Preakness. Still couldn't pass him.
At Belmont, they delivered their closing statement, perhaps the greatest horse race anyone has yet witnessed. The video is remarkable to this day. "Makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up," Cauthen says.
For more than a mile they ran so close together they looked almost like one horse. Alydar seemed about to pull ahead several times. Maybe he even did by a nose. But Affirmed always parried.
Capps stood in the crowd that day and lost himself so completely in the stretch run that he involuntarily flung his program and plunked an older woman in the head. He was an Alydar fan, and yet as they neared the finish line, he accepted that his horse would simply never pass Affirmed.
Rosenberg felt a similar jolt of reality.
"Of course I thought Alydar was a better horse," he says. "I thought that when they were 2-year-olds. I thought it going into the Kentucky Derby. But by the end of the Belmont, I said to myself, Affirmed might only be a head better, but he's better."
Affirmed's story hardly ended with the Triple Crown. In August at the Travers Stakes, he and Alydar met for the 10th and final time. Affirmed again crossed the finish line first, but this time, he didn't win. He was disqualified for cutting off his rival on the backstretch and nearly causing Alydar to fall. Alydar rallied to finish 1 3/4 lengths back and took the victory on paper, though the result left the participants unsatisfied and the fans booing in disgust.
The next month, Affirmed lost straight up in a dream match with the previous year's Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. The race left Nack believing Affirmed wasn't quite as talented as Secretariat or Slew. "He didn't have their brilliance," the writer says.
'He knew he was special'
The loss began a difficult time for the great horse and his precocious jockey. Affirmed finished fifth in his last run of 1978 and then third and second in California races he had no business losing in January 1979.
Cauthen's struggles deepened to the point that Barrera pulled him from Affirmed. The great Laffit Pincay would ride the horse the rest of his career. Cauthen shifted his base to England, where he'd eventually become a star rider all over again. But it was a miserable time. "It was tough on me," says Cauthen, who now raises horses on his farm in Verona, Ky. "My confidence really waned as time went on."
Affirmed, meanwhile, grew into a different horse that year, filling out with 100 extra pounds of muscle and winning even more authoritatively than he had as a 3-year-old. He swept his last seven races with Pincay aboard, punctuating a second Horse of the Year campaign when he beat Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. That race recaptured the Affirmed-Alydar dynamic, with Spectacular Bid, another historically great horse, mounting four unsuccessful rushes to seize the lead. It was a fitting close for Affirmed.
The horse helped make Barrera, a proud, funny man who died in 1991, the top trainer in the sport. Owners Louis and Patrice Wolfson syndicated Affirmed's breeding rights for a then-record $14.4 million.
He retained an unusual self-possession during his long career as a stallion, greeting tour groups as a king might receive his subjects. NBC racing analyst Randy Moss visited him at Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky shortly after he was put out to stud.
Affirmed waited at the far end of his paddock until a sufficient crowd formed at the fence. He then began cutting figure eights around three concrete feeding bins. Finally, he bolted into a mad charge at the fence, pulling up in a cloud of dust just when it seemed he might crash through. There, he posed for photographs in perfect profile.
"He knew he was special," says Cauthen, who visited him often until Affirmed's death in 2001, just shy of his 26th birthday.
Patrice Wolfson has been gracious to all who've tried to follow. Whenever a horse goes to Belmont Park with a chance for the Triple Crown, she publicly roots for it to happen.
She was at the race last year, predicting California Chrome would pull off a "monumental" victory. It didn't happen, of course, just as it hasn't for any of the 13 near-misses since 1978.
Wolfson has mustered her optimism for American Pharoah. "I think the time has possibly come," she said last week on a conference call with reporters. "Yes I do."