Winning a hand of solitaire doesn’t set off a wild celebration. (Seriously — if you’re whooping and high-fiving yourself after landing the King of Clubs, you need to find a new hobby.)
It seems fairly obvious that the reason most games and sports afford a thrill when you win is because they involve competition. Having to prove yourself against an opponent is essential, and the more formidable the opponent, the sweeter the victory.
That’s how humans are wired, anyway; whether horses also think like that may be debatable, but one can’t deny that some of the greatest rivalries in sports have been in thoroughbred racing. Secretariat was the Triple Crown winner in 1973, but the horse that pushed him to record-setting times was, as you may recall, named Sham.
Another of the greatest race horses of the 20th century was Alydar, who has the distinction of being the only horse to finish second in each of the Triple Crown races. In the 1978 Kentucky Derby, teen-aged jockey Steve Cauthen coaxed Affirmed to the wire 1½ lengths ahead of Alydar, who had been a slight favorite.
A couple of weeks later, Affirmed was the favorite in the Preakness, partly because it is contested at a shorter distance. He went to the front as usual, but Jockey Jorge Velasquez got Alydar moving up at the half-mile pole and closed ground on his rival. Ultimately, though, Alydar lost by a neck.
It was the third of that year’s Triple Crown races — the Belmont Stakes — that is considered by a lot of track old-timers to be one of the greatest duels in the annals of horse racing.
Affirmed took the early lead; Alydar was third. The fractions were slow, but by the mile pole Alydar had gotten alongside the frontrunner and the pace quickened. The two rivals left the other horses behind as they charged, stride for stride, into the far turn. As they thundered down the stretch, Alydar briefly managed to take the lead, but Affirmed fought back. Cauthen and Affirmed crossed the finish line a head in front of Velasquez and Alydar, clocking one of the fastest times in Belmont history.
In those 1978 Triple Crown races, Affirmed won all three over Alydar, but by a combined total of less than two lengths.
Their final meeting came in August of 1978, in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Most trainers recognized that they had no chance against the titans; only two other horses were entered. Meanwhile, Steve Cauthen had been injured, so Laffit Pincay, Jr. was up on Affirmed.
Once again, Affirmed took the lead, but as they headed into the far turn, Alydar came charging along on the inside. Pincay steered Affirmed toward the rail, cutting off his rival. Alydar stumbled, almost launching Velasquez out of the saddle, but horse and rider managed to recover and started sprinting after Affirmed again. The Triple Crown champion held on and finished ahead of Alydar, but a steward’s inquiry resulted in the disqualification of Affirmed — Alydar was placed first.
Over their careers the two horses faced each other ten times, with Affirmed winning 7 of the races. Affirmed was the better horse, but Alydar was a close second. You might say that Affirmed’s greatness was affirmed by the excellence of his rival Alydar.