Amid California Chrome’s quest for the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred racing – which continues May 17 with The Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland – comes Linda Carroll and David Rosner’s juicy new book “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry” (Gallery Books, $26, 360 pages). It tells the story of two coppery 3-year-old colts – laidback Affirmed out of upstart Harbor View Farm in Florida and high-strung Alydar out of Calumet Farm in Kentucky, the New York Yankees of Thoroughbred dynasties – who in the spring of 1978 offered racing fans and the general public alike two very different approaches, the authors write:
“Despite their similar chestnut coloring and their shared bloodlines as descendants of the great Native Dancer, Affirmed and Alydar boasted the kind of clashing styles and complementary personalities that fuel the most enduring rivalries. Off the track, the refined Affirmed was as relaxed and easygoing as the regal Alydar was macho and aggressive. On the track, their contrasting styles forged the equine equivalent of Ali the Boxer versus Frazier the Slugger. Affirmed, graceful and swift like Ali, was the classic frontrunner, gliding with the precision of a stopwatch and flicking his ears to alert his precocious jockey (Steve Cauthen) to an impending challenge, while Alydar, brawny and bullish like Frazier, was the classic stalker, gearing up to unleash his come-from-behind knockout punch. The classic confrontation was so close that it would all come down to one champion’s indomitable will to win.”
Indeed, they would race each other 10 times in 14 months, with Affirmed usually gaining the upper hand, er, hoof. But it wasn’t easy. Five of their races were photo finishes. Their Triple Crown battle saw Affirmed come out on top only by a combined half a second. Even now with the outcome long settled, their Belmont battle – which Carroll and Rosner call “the greatest horse race ever run” – remains a taut thriller. To this day, Alydar is the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races. But the Prince of Calumet Farm was the spur:
“Imagine Ali without Frazier, Chamberlain without Russell, Magic without Bird, Nicklaus without Palmer, Evert without Navratilova….” What, no Rafa without Nole?
Like a colt being put through his paces, “Duel for the Crown” takes its sweet time getting around the literary track. There’s some great stuff about Native Dancer, the Vanderbilt-owned iron-gray colt who was known simply as “The Dancer” and who became TV’s first big Thoroughbred star. The Dancer was one of the greatest horses never to win the Triple Crown, losing the Kentucky Derby narrowly to Dark Star in the only race he ever lost. Jockey Eddie Guerin was pegged for the defeat by one of the great sports commentaries: “He took that colt everywhere on the track except the ladies’ room.” But let’s be fair: The Dancer liked to go his own way.
So, too, did his son Raise a Native – Alydar’s dad and Affirmed’s grandpa – who’d turn bucking bronco when you’d try to train him. (If that didn’t work, he’d drop down to the ground and play dead.)
Then there’s Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown winner – precious Whirly to Calumet Farm owners Warren and Lucille Wright; the “dumbest horse I’ve ever trained” to the long-suffering Ben A. Jones.
Whirly simply could not run in a particular path. He was all over the place, including the ladies’ room to borrow from Eddie Guerin’s critics, giving trainer Jones and jockey Eddie “The Master” Arcaro fits. Carroll and Rosner hold Whirly up as an example of talent rather than brains. We tend to think of them as the same thing. But anyone who saw the baseball comedy “Bull Durham” knows – they’re not.
On the other hand, maybe Whirly was just bored and thought he’d jerk his owners’, trainer’s and jockey’s bits. Maybe he wasn’t so dumb after all.
Reading about Affirmed, Alydar and all the great Triple Crown winners that came before them, you have to wonder about nature and nurture. Was Affirmed’s steadier temperament the difference? Did his Harbor View Farm just want it more?
It’s a subject I’ll explore in the third novel in my series “The Games Men Play, “ “Criterion,” about a horse trying to become the first to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed.
Or California Chrome.