They turned for home three abreast, stride for stride, and bounded down the stretch in the Hollywood Gold Cup. From almost the drop of the flag, Affirmed and Sirlad had battled head and head, and by the final bend Text had ranged alongside of them. Now the three were joined—Affirmed on the rail, Sirlad right next to him, Text on the outside. They had just raced through a fiery mile in 1:34⅕ and coming off that final turn they seemed hooked, like a team, each refusing to yield an inch to the others. It was a classic duel, one rivaling the memorable match between Affirmed and Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, but there were three horses this time, heads bobbing together, with the crowd of 48,884 on its feet and roaring.
Down to the eighth pole the three kept coming, with Jockey Laffit Pincay raising his whip and lashing at Affirmed—once, twice, three times, beating right-handed in rhythm to the colt's stride. Beside Pincay, whipping almost in unison with him, Darrel McHargue flailed at Sirlad. And on the outside, Bill Shoemaker was bumping and thumping on Text.
With about a furlong to go, Text began to yield. Fifty more yards, he was half a length behind and out of it. Now the duel was just as it had begun—Affirmed and Sirlad. Inside the sixteenth pole the two still fought it out. Finally, Affirmed pulled a head in front, then a neck, then half a length. In the final yards of the 1¼-mile race, with Sirlad still hanging on tenaciously, Affirmed edged away to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:58⅖ only [1/5]th off the world record for the distance set by Quack in the same race in 1972.
The 1979 Gold Cup had been a tremendous race, and all at once a joyous bedlam broke out at Hollywood Park. Toward the winner's circle, angling past the tumultuous crowd, came Laz Barrera, trainer of Affirmed, looking vaguely stunned at the spectacle just seen. Beside him, wiping her face, was Patrice Jacobs Wolfson, wife of the winner's owner, Louis Wolfson. Spectators shouted, "Attaway Laz!" to Barrera all the way down to the winner's circle. Barrera, plunging on past the throng, muttered several times, "What a race. What a race." And then, reaching the circle, he said, "A great horse, isn't he? A great horse."
The crowd erupted again as Pincay, rocking in the stirrups, brought Affirmed back to the finish line. Barrera walked out to meet him, both hands pumping over his head.
"Thank you," Barrera said.
"Congratulations, Lazaro," the smiling Pincay replied.
A moment later, as the chestnut colt strode to the winner's circle, the voice of track announcer Harry Henson called out the message of the year in racing over the loudspeaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, the richest racehorse in thoroughbred history—Affirmed!"
So it was last Sunday when Harbor View Farm's Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown winner, became the first horse in the history of thoroughbred racing to win $2 million in purses. The setting and the event were certainly consistent with the history made. Almost 30 years ago, Citation closed out his illustrious career with a victory in the same race (it was $100,000 added in those days) to become the first thoroughbred to earn $1 million—$1,085,760, to be precise. Twenty-three horses have since passed the million-dollar mark—testimony to ever-expanding purses—but only two came close to $2 million. Kelso left the racetrack in 1966 with earnings of $1,977,896; at age nine, the old horse simply couldn't go on. Forego, with recurring injuries stopping him at last, retired last year with $1,938,957.
Not that Affirmed was particularly close before the Gold Cup. He came to the race with earnings of $1,769,218, a full $230,782 shy of the record—by ordinary standards at least two, maybe three, major victories short of his goal. But the Gold Cup was not ordinary in money offered or circumstances leading up to it. Earlier in June, the gross purse was boosted from $350,000—with a winner's share of $192,500, not enough for Affirmed to break the $2 million barrier—to $500,000, making it the richest thoroughbred race in American history, and increasing the winner's take-home pay to $275,000, enough to push Affirmed's bankroll to $2,044,218.
Attendance and handle had been down at Hollywood Park this year, and the track was looking for a way to stir media interest and to intrigue fans. A strike of pari-mutuel clerks, with pickets marching at the gates, cut into attendance the first 20 days of the meeting. An enervating heat wave came and went, and the gasoline shortage certainly didn't help. On June 5, when the purse hike was announced, it seemed that the track was raising the ante just to give Affirmed a chance to make a bit of history.
"Absolutely not," says Marge Everett, executive vice-president of Hollywood Park. "It was not in any manner designed for one horse. The problem with racing is we all have to come out with our stakes schedules several months in advance. We are guessing what might be running several months later in our major races. I don't care how brilliant you are, I defy anyone to say in January what might be running in June. You have to be flexible. One year we had a chance to get Foolish Pleasure. We boosted the purse [for the Swaps Stakes, from $100,000 to $200,000], then New York put on the special match race between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian. So, if you will pardon the expression, it's a dog-eat-dog business competitively."
In raising the purse, Everett says the track was trying to lure stakes stars from the East, most notably Alydar, Affirmed's foil in the Triple Crown. "Can you imagine what a great attraction we would have had with Alydar and Affirmed?" she says. "We gambled. You don't always make it; sometimes you do. This time the gamble didn't work."
Calumet Farm trainer John Veitch says Hollywood Park officials called him repeatedly through the spring to urge him to ship Alydar to California. "Marge Everett told me she wanted to make the Gold Cup a horse race and Alydar was the horse to do it," he says. "I told her I was interested but I couldn't guarantee anything. Finally, the way things turned out, I thought I was better off staying East. Hollywood Park is conducive to speed, and Alydar was just returning to form. I was giving too much away."
Two weeks after the $500,000 purse was set, handicapper Eual Wyatt assigned the weights for the Gold Cup. Playing the oldest game in racing, trainer Laz Barrera had threatened not to run Affirmed if he were given more than 132 pounds. "I don't want him to carry so much weight he gets hurt," he said. "From now on I'm going to be very careful running him with weight. He don't have to prove anything no more. He has established his value. More important to me is that he be a good stallion."
Wyatt listed Affirmed at 132 pounds. "It was an out-and-out gift," says trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had nominated Arachnoid for the race. "He should have had at least 135." Horsemen pointed out that Ack Ack, not the horse Affirmed is, carried 134 pounds in winning the 1971 Gold Cup. Moreover, Affirmed was coming off a smashing triumph in the 1[1/16]-mile Californian, winning by five lengths under 130 pounds. So he picked up two pounds for the Gold Cup. "I think it's a fair weight," Wyatt said. "We'll see on Sunday."
Thus Affirmed, carrying 132 pounds (Sirlad carried 120) for the classic American distance of 1¼ miles, gave ample evidence that he is the most capable thoroughbred in America, certainly a better horse right now than he was at three. Since his fall campaign, in which both Seattle Slew and Exceller beat him, he has grown into a racehorse. He is taller, for one thing, and he has filled out some. He was never heavily muscled; rather he was leggy, tending to leanness, especially in the heat of the long 1978 campaign. Then he struck one as more the doe than the buck—light of bone, with nothing gross or coarse about him, and very refined. "Neat as a pin," said Sirlad's trainer Charlie Whittingham. This year, having grown perhaps an inch and added 100 pounds to the frame, he looks a bit more substantial. And, if anything, he is even more phlegmatic now than before. "He has a better disposition than any horse I've ever seen," says Whittingham, "not a nerve in his body."
But more than $2 million in the bank. That he has been able to amass such a fortune so quickly is testimony to his considerable talents and consistency, to Barrera's horsemanship and, of course, to inflation. With Sunday's victory, Affirmed had started 26 times in his life and earned an average of $78,264 per start, a remarkable figure, roughly comparable to winning a $100,000 race every time he ran. Exterminator, the great handicap horse of 60 years ago, averaged $2,530 a start in 100 races. A decade later, Equipoise earned $6,639 a start—$338,610 in 51 races—while Citation averaged $24,128 in 45. In the early '60s, Kelso averaged $31,395 over 63 tries, and in the 1970s, Forego $34,017 in 57.
And Affirmed isn't through yet. "He'll go to Saratoga for a rest," Barrera says, "and run in New York in the fall." There are millionaires aplenty on the rolls of racing stars. Affirmed will retire the Croesus of them all.
Affirmed outdueled Sirlad down the stretch and barely missed a world record for a 1¼-mile race.