Will Big Brown Break The Triple Crown Jinx?

Affirmed, on the inside, edges out Alydar in the 1978 Belmont to win the Triple Crown.

In the past 30 years, no less than 10 horses have come into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. All 10 have lost.

Will Big Brown, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and Belmont favorite, break the jinx?

It’s a long litany of losers, from Spectacular Bid (1979) to Pleasant Colony (1981) to Alysheba (1987) to Sunday Silence (1989). From Silver Charm (1997) to Real Quiet in 1998 to Charismatic (1999) to War Emblem (2002). And then Funny Cide in 2003 and Smarty Jones in 2004. On Dasher, on Dancer……

On June 10, 1978, Affirmed nosed out Alydar to win the Belmont and the Triple Crown in what many racing pundits consider the greatest horse race ever. It was the third Triple Crown in five years, following the great Secretariat in 1973 and Seattle Slew in 1977. There hasn’t been one since.

“Been around racing 50 years,” Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens told William Leggett of Sports Illustrated after the 1978 Belmont, “and I’ve seen dawn come up over a lot of tracks. People will tell you about the great races between Citation and Noor out in California in the early 1950s, and the race between Ridan and Jaipur in the Travers at Saratoga in 1962. Great races. But Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont? Probably the best horse race that’s ever been run.

“I’ll look at it again and again anytime I’m fortunate enough to get the chance. I’ll raise a glass to ’em while I’m watchin’ the replays and, damn, I’ll root—come on Affirmed, come on Alydar. Come on (Steve) Cauthen, come on (Jorge) Velasquez. Whatever it is that these two horses have cannot be bought or manufactured. It’s the greatest act horse racing has ever had. I hope it never ends.”

Going into the Belmont, Affirmed had beaten Alydar by 1/12 lengths to win the Kentucky Derby, and by a nose to win the Preakness. Seemingly, the two were as evenly matched as two horses could be.

For the last half-mile in the 1 ½-mile Belmont, the two jockeys, 18-year-old Cathuen and Velasquez, went head to head. “We got in the front, by maybe a head, at the 3/16th pole,” said Alydar jockey Velasquez. “I thought, maybe today would be different . . . until very late.”

With Cauthen whipping Affirmed with his left hand, while Velasquez whipped Alydar with his right, the two were dead even with a 1/16th of a mile to go. Affirmed poked his nose ahead in front five strides from the finish, and kept inching ahead. He won by a neck. It was Affirmed’s seventh victory in nine meetings with his arch-rival, seven wins by a total of 10 lengths. Alydar remains the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races. ‘It was a real horse race, all right,” Cathuen said later.

Affirmed was the 11th Triple Crown winner and, for the first time, there were successive winners (Seattle Slew won in 1977). As the 3-5 favorite, Affirmed paid $3.20 to win. With only five horses in the field, there was no show betting.

I was lucky enough to be at Belmont Park in 1978 with a bunch of friends to see horse racing history. We had a great view of the finish and I will never forget that guttural roar of a New York crowd, building to a crescendo, as Affirmed and Alydar came down the stretch.

We pooled what little money we had back then on Affirmed, but the real thrill was the race, not the payoff….atlhough the winnings helped us get over the Whitestone Bridge. None of us there that day ever thought that 30 years later we’d still be waiting for the next Triple Crown.


One Comment on “Will Big Brown Break The Triple Crown Jinx?”

  1. Mark says:

    Terrific re-cap of the 1978 race. I arrived at the track at 5 a.m. to get one of the few unreserved seats and waited 13 hours for the greatest race ever run. I’ve watched the replay 1,000 times, and still root for Alydar every time. Here’s a nice article that reviews all 17 horses who won two legs, but not the elusive third, since 1978, with some good links to articles and video.


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