Affirmed must have been born under a lucky star.
The champion colt runs Saturday in the $175,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park, and he will never be more vulnerable. He has not had a serious race since midsummer, and now he is attempting to go a mile and one quarter. Even with Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera managing him, that will be a difficult task.
But the horse who could have beaten Affirmed under these conditions won't be in the Woodward lineup. Spectacular Bid will remain in his stall at Delaware Park because a slight fever last week set back his training.
The four challengers who will go to the post at 5:40 p.m. are no pushovers, but they are horses that Affirmed should be able to beat: Czaravich, Coastal, Sirlad and Mister Brea.
"I'm not so much worried about the other horses," Barrera said today. "But I am worried that Affirmed has not run since June 24." The colt ended his California campaign on that date, winning the Hollywood Gold Cup to become the first thoroughbred in history to earn more than $2 million.
He did win a three-horse exhibition race in late August that was supposed to be a prep for the Marlboro Cup. But he skipped the Marlboro, the race that would have served as a perfect conditioner for the Woodward, because Barrera didn't like his 133-pound weight assignment.
Under the weight-for-age conditions of the Woodward, Affirmed carries only 126.
The horse who is being ballyhooed as Affirmed's strongest challenger is Czaravich, a 3-year-old who has won five of his starts this year. Trained by Billy Turner and ridden by Jean Cruguet -- the team responsible for Seattle Slew's Triple Crown victories -- Czaravich has had a big local reputation since the very start of his career.
But Czaravich has not yet lived up to the lofty expectations of him. His two-length victory in his last start, the Jerome Handicap, was hardly impressive enough to suggest that he can beat the defending Horse of the Year.
"I can't understand why everyone is picking Czaravich," said Barrera, who feels that his principal rival is Coastal.
Coastal had won six straight races until he faced Spectacular Bid in the Marlboro Cup and was soundly beaten. Trainer David Whiteley is pessimistic about the colt's chances against Affirmed, but there is one factor in his favor.
Coastal came into the Marlboro Cup after a five-week layoff; he hadn't had a hard race in more than two months. He could not have been perfectly fit. But the Marlboro should have prepared him for a maximum effort in the Woodward.
Sirlad also has an outside chance to pull an upset. He lost by only three quarters of a length to Affirmed in the Hollywood Gold Cup (while getting a 12-pound weight concession). He has trained brilliantly at Belmont for the Woodward.