Great Racehorses of the Seventies

The 1970s represent one of the last decades in which high-risk Thoroughbred breeds dominated the public mind as they had during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, when great horses like Man O’War, Seabiscuit and Citation went from being sport horses. Page celebrities to bona fide culture heroes, and Quote went from sports page celebrity to bona fide culture heroes. Take a look at two great horse racing stories from the ’70s: the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar, and the life of a horse that was second to none: Secretariat.

The Rivals: Asserted Against Alydar

Although there is a natural link between aristocratic lifestyles and equestrian pursuits, the most famous horse racing stories (at least in the United States) tend, ironically, to be rags-to-riches stories. Affirmed (1975-2001) is as good an example of this trend as any. The colt of Exclusive Native and Wo n’t Tell You, this Florida-born racehorse seemed to be in the middle of the pack in his first few races: a horse with some potential, but not a world conqueror.

Even after his emergence as a serious competitor, many racing fans pinned their highest hopes on Alydar, the impressive, tough Calumet colt with whom Affirmed developed a fruitful relationship between Rogers and Shorter in the late 1970s, beating him in the Youthful Stakes. but losing to him in the Great American Stakes (one of his first meetings).

What Affirmed lacked was muscle (giving up five pounds to his rival) and advantages that he often made up for in heart, with wins late in the 1977 season in the Hopeful and Futurity stakes. Although the rainy winter of 1978 hampered his training, Affirmed gained pounds of muscle and emerged in early March as a mature and impressive racehorse.

All eyes were on Alydar and Affirmed when the 1978 Kentucky Derby flashed before their eyes. The larger of the two horses was the 6-5 favorite, but Affirmed got off to a strong start that propelled him to victory. Although he continued to be perceived as a bit of an underdog even in light of this success, with Eastern sportswriters dismissing his impressive performances as a fluke, or perhaps luck off a good start, he did score another win, albeit much closer, in which Affirmed moved into range of Alydar’s famous (but thankfully absent) final kick in Preakness.

But there are three races in the Triple Crown, the last being the Belmont Stakes over 12 furlongs. A horse that seemed stronger over long distances, Alydar posed a greater threat here, and the race played out just as Alydar’s trainers expected: a fiery head-to-head duel in the sun. But Affirmed responded to this unprecedented pressure with a grace under fire that could make Hemingway blush: cornered at the rail in the final stretch, he burned around his rival in a final burst of power and, by a nose, won Belmont – and the Triple Crown.

Years later, the two horses were reunited at Calumet Farms, where they were both put to stud.


Thoroughbred racing doesn’t always get all the headlines. Basketball players, quarterbacks, even football players and Olympians get most of the glory, TV biographies, Sports Illustrated covers. But twice during the 20th century, a horse became not just a media star, but a universal symbol: a galloping, galvanizing metaphor for legacy.

The first time, it was Seabiscuit. And in the early 1970s, when the country seemed on the brink of a second depression, when civil rights were in the dust and Watergate was slowly beginning to unravel, there was Secretariat (1970-89).

From his earliest days, when he refused to cling to his mother like most grazing newborns do, he was recognized as a special horse. The names submitted by his owner Penny Tweedy to the Jockey Club reflect this early sense of his uniqueness: “Something Special”, “Deo Volente”, “Scepter”. All of these names were in use, and it was a secretary at Meadow Stables who finally suggested “Secretary”.

In his two-year-old season, he took eight first-place finishes in a row, after an embarrassing debut in which he was shoved at the starting gate with the hands (hooves) of the other horses. This mostly bright start marked him out in the eyes of fans and speculators.

Secretariat’s owners syndicated him in a record-breaking $6,080,000 settlement, one of the conditions of which was that Colt’s racing career ended and his breeding career began after the following season. So, Secretariat began his three-year-old season with special stakes, having a year to make his mark.

The circumstances were special and required special actions. He had won the previous races in the Triple Stakes, with one rare exception, at Wood Memorial, which only served (according to his owner) to infuriate him and increase his determination. In the Kentucky Derby he earned a come-from-behind victory, while in the Preakness, the rising horse earned a 2 1/2-length victory over his closest rival. Now the anticipation increased. Would Secretariat give America the first Triple Crown victory of the TV generation? Or would he be the victim of injury, illness, or the kind of inexplicable weakness that had hurt him at Wood, but this time with much more at stake?

At the event, the Secretariat met the expectations of the viewers. But what no one could have predicted was an almost embarrassing margin of victory that established him as not just a great horse, but possibly the greatest ever. In the Belmont Stakes he entered the stretch with 20 light lengths between him and his closest competitor. Then, in the complete absence of competition, he ran just himself, extending that margin to 31 lengths and setting a world record of 2:24.

Perhaps noted writer George Plimpton put it best, in an interview with ESPN’s Classic SportsCentury series: “He was the only honest thing in this country at the time. This huge, magnificent animal who ‘just ran because he loved to run.’

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