The great duel between Affirmed and Alydar in 1978 produced the last Triple Crown winner, as Alydar came in second to Affirmed in all three races, the only time in its history that the same two horses won and placed in each of the three races. Eleven times since then a horse has won the Derby and Preakness, only to be beaten in the Belmont Stakes. But none of these had the excitement of the 1978 chase.
The newsprint announcing I’ll Have Another’s victory in the Preakness wasn’t dry yet when people started comparing this year’s Triple Crown chase to that of 1978. Though I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister have replicated the 1978 duel so far, alas, the decision by Bodemeister’s connections not to run him in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes means there won’t be a direct repeat of 1978 even if I’ll Have Another wins.
1978 was a historic year on a number of fronts. For me, personally, it was historic because it was the year I graduated from high school, and began college. Others may remember other things: “Hey, Bob, the pope is dead,” my roommate at Transy told me one Sunday morning, looking at the Courier-Journal that had just been delivered. “Nah, Rich, you’ve got an old newspaper there,” I told him. “The pope died three months ago.”
But the headlines were true again. It was the year of the three popes: in 1978, Pope Paul VI passed away after a long papacy, to be succeeded by Pope John Paul I, who passed away himself three months later, after one of history’s shortest papacies. He would be succeeded by John Paul II, who made history as the first non-Italian pope in centuries. We didn’t know it at the time, but the real news was that John Paul I was the last Italian pope for what has now been over three decades, and so far, two non-Italian popes.
Calumet Farm, which in the 1930s and ‘40s had dominated racing as no other farm had done before, or has done since, was also undergoing changes in 1978. Its matriarch, Lucille Parker Markey, was aging, and would pass away in 1982, two years after her beloved husband Admiral Gene Markey, passed away in 1980. Admiral Markey has largely been forgotten in Lexington today but those who knew him, like my old friend, Blood-Horse editor Kent Hollingsworth, saw him as the stabilizing force behind the mercurial Mrs. Markey. This must have amazed everyone who had known Admiral Markey as a dashing Hollywood producer.
He had produced Hollywood blockbusters, including “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which introduced Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and was legendary as a ladies’ man. The headline of a 1946 article in the Washington Times Herald proclaimed: “Other Men Say: What’s Gene Markey Got That We Haven’t Got?”
In the appropriately named “Wild Ride,” author Anne Hagedorn Auerbach quoted Myrna Loy, who, in withdrawing her charges of mental cruelty against Markey (in those days, one had to allege grounds for divorce, however trumped up), saying, “He could make a scrubwoman think she was a queen and he could make a queen think she was the queen of queens.”
Often associated with Hollywood starlets in gossip columns, Markey married three actresses, Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, and Myrna Loy, each a legendary beauty. His marriage to Loy broke up in 1950, and by 1952, he had married the former Mrs. Wright, and abandoned Hollywood for New York, Kentucky, and Florida, to spend the rest of his life as Mr. Calumet Farm.
His title of Admiral was real: During World War II, he had served in the Naval Reserve as a highly decorated intelligence officer in the Pacific, after he donated his own yacht to the Navy as a submarine chaser. Legend has it that he was the model for the character played by Burgess Meredith in the 1965 film In Harm’s Way, starring Markey’s good friend John Wayne. When Admiral Markey arrived in Lexington, he knew that his womanizing reputation preceded him, and knew that any slip on his part would ignite gossip. Author Auerbach says that she never heard a single story in Lexington accusing Markey of infidelity, and I haven’t, either. He was a devoted husband to Mrs. Markey – and a tireless supporter of Calumet Farm.
I remember the stories about the Markeys in 1978, the stories that they would eat dinner together, each in a wheelchair because of their age and health, and then be wheeled into their living room to watch tv together. America feared that this would be Calumet’s last shot at a Triple Crown winner.
Louis Wolfson and his horse Affirmed was the only thing standing between the Markeys and a third Triple Crown winner for Calumet Farm, which had produced Triple Crown winners Whirlaway in 1941, and Citation, in 1948.
Wolfson was a famous figure himself, though for reasons he’d rather not think about. A Wall Street wheeler-dealer, Wolfson had been convicted in 1969 for selling unregistered securities, a conviction widely viewed on Wall Street as unfair. If Calumet Farm needed a winner to prove that it still mattered, so did Wolfson.
The names of the two horses reflect the differences in their owners: New Yorker turf writer G.F.T. Royall, writing as Audax Minor, wrote: “If you wonder how Alydar got his name, Mrs. Gene Markey, who owns Calumet Farm and enjoys naming her horses, put the first three letters of Aly Khan (a son of the Aga Khan and a friend of the family) together with the first three letters of the word ‘darling.’” This came from Mrs. Markey’s habit of referring to the Aly Khan as “Aly, darling . . .”
Affirmed, on the other hand, is reputed to have been named for the fact that Wolfson’s criminal conviction had been affirmed by the court of appeals.
Affirmed’s jockey, Steve Cauthen, was big news as well. Four months younger than me, while I was finishing up high school in Beattyville, Kentucky, Cauthen was taking high school correspondence courses and becoming one of the best known jockeys in America, bursting onto the Thoroughbred scene in 1977 with 487 wins, the winningest jockey in America, at the age of 17.
No modern duel had so many matches as this one. Including the three Triple Crown races, all won by Affirmed, the two battled ten times, with Affirmed winning seven of the races, and Alydar two. Six of those ten meetings came in their two-year-old year; Affirmed won four of the six races, and Alydar won two. Alydar ended his two-year-old year with 10 starts, 5 wins, and 4 seconds. Affirmed ended the year with 9 starts, 7 wins, and 2 seconds. Affirmed won the Eclipse Award as Champion 2 Year Old of 1977.
After Affirmed and Alydar turned three years old, and the 1978 Derby approached, things begin getting bizarre, even for the ‘70s. Ted Bundy, its iconic serial killer, was captured in Florida. Charlie Chaplin’s body was stolen from its resting place in Switzerland. Roman Polansky fled to Europe after pleading guilty to sexual conduct with a 13-year-old in California. Kentucky-born pornographer Larry Flynt was shot and paralyzed in Lawrenceville, Georgia. The People’s Republic of China (before becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of WalMart) lifted its ban on works by Aristotle, Shakespeare and Dickens, though Mao book bags would not become fashionable for another decade. In Rhodesia, Ian Smith, the last face of Anglo-Apartheid, began negotiations toward dismantling his white government, and creating what would become Zimbabwe.
As three-year-olds, Affirmed and Alydar took divergent paths in the run-up to the Derby, Affirmed primarily racing in California, and Alydar primarily racing in Florida. The two first met at the Kentucky Derby as three-year-olds. Alydar won the Flamingo Stakes, Florida Derby and finally the Blue Grass Stakes, where he blew away the competition by 13 lengths. Affirmed won the San Felipe Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, and the Hollywood Derby. As the Derby approached, everyone knew who the contenders would be. The New Yorker’s Ryall noted in March that the two would battle it out in the Triple Crown. Alydar was made the slight favorite at 6/5 and Affirmed the second choice at 9/5 in the Derby. Affirmed ran much like Bodemeister, in that he liked to dominate a race from the start, often leading pole to pole. In the Derby, Affirmed wasn’t able to take the lead until the stretch, though he had never been further out of the lead than third place. Alydar, a closer, like I’ll Have Another, wasn’t able to close fast enough, and Affirmed held off his late rush to win by a length and a half.
The performance was repeated in the Preakness, with Affirmed, in the lead from the quarter pole on, once again holding off a late charge by Alydar. The run up to the 1978 Belmont Stakes was exactly the opposite of this year’s duel. This year, I’ll Have Another, the late closer, with the stamina, is the winner, while Bodemeister, the fast dominator, has fallen by the wayside. Before the 1978 Belmont, touts said that the length of the race would favor a late closer like Alydar, and put off a speed horse like Affirmed.
With only three other horses in the race, the 1978 Belmont became a match race between Affirmed and Alydar. Unfortunately, that won’t happen this year between Bodemeister and I’ll Have Another. Setting a blistering pace, Affirmed and Alydar battled it out head to head in the Belmont. Affirmed’s jockey, Steve Cauthen later told an interviewer, “Alydar was really breathing down my neck. He got a head in front of us for a few strides, but once we got the lead back, I knew he’d never give it up.” Although Affirmed beat out Alydar in the Belmont by only a head, the next horse was 13 lengths back. Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner and Alydar became the only horse to finish second in all three races.
The two met only one time after the Belmont, at that year’s Travers Stakes, in a result still disputed today. With substitute jockey Lafitte Pincay aboard while Cauthen recovered from a spill, Affirmed won the race by a length and three quarters, only to be disqualified for interference while they were charging down the backstretch. Pincay was set down for seven days. Nonetheless, as the New Yorker’s Ryall said, “Old-time Saratogans said that, despite the dampening effect of the disqualification, this was the greatest Travers they had ever seen. By this point, Charlie Chaplin’s body had been recovered by the police in Switzerland, and Annie Hall had won the 1978 Academy Award for best picture, ensuring the sale of large tweed sportcoats for another two decades.
Though he was rarely able to outrun Affirmed at the track, Alydar had his revenge at the breeding shed. Standing at a Calumet Farm now controlled by Mrs. Markey’s son in law, J.T. Lundy, Alydar became the most commercially successful sire of his day, leading to his overbreeding by Lundy. As one wag said at the time, “J.T. would breed Alydar at midnight on Saturday night to someone paying cash . . .”
Ironically, one of Alydar’s greatest offspring was Easy Goer, who ran in his father’s footsteps, coming in second to Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness in 1989, though he surpassed his father by beating his adversary in the Belmont.
Alydar’s mysterious, untimely, and probably criminal, death in November, 1990, was also the death blow to Calumet Farm. I represented some of the creditors in the Calumet Farm bankruptcy case, and remember taking depositions at the Farm’s offices. During breaks, we wandered around the farm, and I happened upon the stall in which Alydar had lived, and ultimately died. His halter tag was posted, along with the stallions who had lived in the stall before, and after, him.
Affirmed, having only moderate success at stud, was euthanized in 2001, suffering from the effects of laminitis. In 1978, the Triple Crown chase produced drama, news, and the sport’s only Triple Crown winner for 35 years. At least. I’m ready for another, and this year is as good a time as any.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.