The preakness was hardly history when the statistical types offered the latest update on the Affirmed-Alydar figures. "They've run 7 9/16 miles and 2 1/2 lengths separates them," it was reported.
Affirmed holds the advantage, but it is more than 2 1/2 lengths. He holds one divisional championship and two-thirds of the Triple Crown and, most importantly, all four decisions in which the decision was in doubt until the final strides.
Too much emphasis is placed on the early history of these two colts when statistics are mentioned. Their sprint records as 2-year-olds are not important except that, even then, Affirmed won the close contests, such as Saratoga's Hopeful and the Futurity at Bel mont.
Much more relevent is to look at the facts starting with the Champagne Stakes at Belmont on Oct. 15. Alydar won that mile feature by 1 1/2 lengths over Affirmed - but that race was the key to their future.
Steve Cauthen committed the only mistake he has ever made on Affirmed that day. He went to the lead early but he permitted Sauce Boat, on the inside, and Darby Creek Road, moving on the outside, to get Affirmed between them in midstretch. Affirmed was unable to see Alydar's strong rally outside of Darby Creek Road.
What many fans failed to observe in the Champagne was what happened after Alydar began to blow past Affirmed, the Calumet colt looked like he was going to win by two, three or more lengths. Instead, once Affirmed got clear of Darby Creek Road and Sauce BoatM he came back at Alydar.
This is a rare quality in a young horse. It made Affirmed special, in my book, even though I was a charter member of the "Alydar for the Derby" Club.
What happened in the Champagne was not lost on Laz Barrera. From that time on, his primary instruction to Cauthen has been: "Be sure and have Affirmed in position where Alydar can't knock you over the head. Be sure Affirmed is able to see him coming."
Cauthen enjoys a distinct tactical advantage over Jorge Velasquaz in this respect. Affirmed is the more tractable, the more versitile performer. Cauthen probably could place him on top of the rail, if he had to Alydar by comparison, is a one-dimensional stretch runner. Cauthen waits and waits, then waits some more for Velasquaz to make an appearance. Affirmed relaxes. Then he goes to work.
It is a strategy that has worked pefectly in the Laurel Futurity, Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. There is no reason to expect the outcome of the Belmont Stakes, on June 10 to be any different. Affirmed figures to become the 11th Triple Crown winner. The mile and a half distance holds no special terror for him.
Affirmed's fears will be from within, not from without. The Harbor View colt come to Kentucky from California honed to a fine point, physically. A little too fine, perhaps. He held his weight well for the Preakness but it was a hard, demanding effort, unlike the Derby. Should Affirmed slip, physically, Alydar has a chance at Belmont; because the two are so close and Alydar does not face the same weight danger. He is rugged specimen of a thoroughbred.
Physical condition and soundness are the vital factors at this point. As Barrera pointed out at the Preakness barn, Forward Pass, Majestic Prince and Canonero II all lost, eventually, because they became unglued. "Affirmed," said Barrera, is sound."
It would be unfair, however, to wrap up the 103rd Preakness without giving special credit where it is due. And that would be a Alydar.
This is a phenomenal animal. His heart should be shattered in 100 places by this time, after having given 100 percent 100 percent of the time, often to finish second.
Racing's history books show what happened in the Royal Vale - Tom Fool, Jamie K. - Native Dancer, Crozier - Carry Back and Sham - Secretariat series, even though they were of considerably shorter duration. The loser disintergrated. But Alydar keeps battling back, a truly outstanding colt refusing to admit defeat even though confronted by a slightly superior runner.