How It All Began
In the opulent kingdom of horse racing, nothing attracts public interest more than an exciting rivalry. It would be difficult for racing pundits to think of the 1977 and 1978 seasons without imagining what those years would have contained without the Affirmed-Alydar duels. For two pulsating campaigns they defined racing, as their spirited rivalry became a part of racing legend. It would make everyone forget whatever happened on a racetrack before and with the ride of Paul Revere would go right into the history books: Alydar from the laudatory Calumet Stable and Affirmed from Harbor View with a trainer, Laz Barrera, who appeared to talk to horses in metaphors of Spanish and broken English; Steve Cauthen, an unexcitable seventeen-year-old jockey who looked as if he should be sweeping chimneys in nineteenth-century London; an owner, Louis Wolfson, who needed to restore his reputation after a conviction, with a horse every inch a thoroughbred for the lithographs. The characters all worthy of a Norman Rockwell portrait.
On a cool February morning in 1976, Wolfson, who had shared his feelings with family members concerning Affirmed, was at Harbor View Farm to observe Affirmed as he had done many times before. Affirmed was a yearling now, an age when horsemen can make a more definitive judgment of an animal and his possibilities of becoming a champion. Wolfson spoke for a few moments with his farm manager, George Gauthier, while watching Affirmed frolic around the paddock.
Wolfson’s smile was telling. Apparently pleased with what he had heard, Wolfson then shook hands good-bye with Gauthier and waved to a couple of handlers who were close by. By this time next year, Affirmed would be a two-year-old, saddled at a racetrack and run for the first time.
Melvin James, in Wolfson’s employ in 1976, was Affirmed’s first trainer as a yearling and also fashioned a liking to Affirmed, even though he gave the appearance of being a lazy horse. James eventually broke Affirmed by teaching him how to handle a bridle along with a bit and a saddle before he ever got on a track.
“I never had any trouble with him,” disclosed James. “He was a smart horse and took to instructions easy enough. I had the feeling that he was going to be someone special.”
Affirmed was an impressive-looking yearling. His legs tested strong and not the least bit bowed. His alertness was evident in response to talk directed at him. It was almost humanlike when he listened and perked his ears straight up.
“He would pull his head back and nod a couple of times as if he wanted to talk,” said James.
With a triangular-shaped, foot-long white stripe from his forehead to the top of his muzzle, Affirmed carried the description of handsome. If Rodin needed a model to sculpt a one-year-old horse, it would be Affirmed.
Wolfson put a large amount of trust in James and often conferred with him, not only about Affirmed but other matters. James felt that Wolfson liked him because he was so independent and spoke his mind. One such time Wolfson asked James why an expensive yearling, which was a purchase and not a homebred like Affirmed, had his own pen away from the rest of the horses.
“So, I said, ‘You know what that is, Mr. Wolfson? That’s the rich white kid on top of the hill up there eating his steak and potatoes. And, in a few months, you’ll send him down to Harlem and he’ll get his ass kicked.’ Nobody could tell me what to do because if I didn’t see it work, I wouldn’t do it.”
James shook his head at what happened next.
“Mr. Wolfson knew what I was saying, and he made sure they turned that colt out to be a horse with the rest of them,” he chuckled.
Affirmed never had such luxury. His stall was no different from any of the others. The farm was designed so that the homebreds were housed in one section of the barns and the purchased yearlings in another section.
“Nobody could see a streak of lightning in him,” admitted James. “He was just a very docile, very quiet horse. One of the noticeable things about him was that things that got a horse excited did not bother him. Things would be going on in the barn, grooms would be walking through and horses would be going into the stalls, and he would be sound asleep. Lying down, flat asleep. You could hear him snoring.
“Come feeding time, all the horses would be banging on the tubs waiting to get fed and he’d be asleep. Some days you’d have to step over him to put his feed in the stall. He’d rise up maybe a few seconds after you left and he’d feed. And by the time you got done at the other end, he’d be back to sleep.”
Affirmed’s personality was so unusual, different from that of any of the other horses. It wasn’t that Affirmed was lazy. At times, more likely he was bored. He was alert and aware of what was taking place around him and reacted to it. It’s just that if he wasn’t interested in what was happening, he would just lie down and take a nap.
Gauthier, the manager of Harbor View since 1971, also had a deep affection for Affirmed. He saw the newborn on the morning he was born in stall 80.
“Mr. Wolfson spotted him right away when he was a weanling,” remembered Gauthier. “He saw Affirmed running along with a group of other weanlings and he picked him above the rest. While running in a field of eighteen or twenty others, he would always go to the front. Mr. Wolfson picked him out as the one which would be the best of the lot.”
Wolfson’s wife, Patrice, named Affirmed, and poetically so. She grew up in Queens, New York, in a horse environment with her father, Hirsch Jacobs, an outstanding trainer who is in the Racing Hall of Fame. She was a precocious child who loved horses. As a youngster, Patrice would do any number of chores around the stables and learned from her father the nuances of training horses.
The name History was the first choice bandied about by the Wolfsons. But Affirmed was a lawyer’s term Patrice had heard so often from the legal tribulations her husband had undergone over the years. She, more than anyone else, was fond of Affirmed, who would often lay his head on her lap.
“We watched, as time went by, how the colt became the leader of the pack, roughhousing with his playmates, yet coming over to the fence where we stood to gently nuzzle his admiring owners,” offered Patrice.
“Affirmed was a smart horse with such a beautiful head,” remembered Karla Wolfson, the wife of Louis’s son Marty Wolfson, who began his career as a trainer back then and is now one of Florida’s top three conditioners. “I told Patrice that Affirmed was a reincarnation of her father, who she was very close to,” added Karla.
It was why Louis Wolfson looked upon the dawning of 1977 with high anticipation. Other owners might have, too. It’s the nature of the sport. But for Wolfson, it was personal. He was on a mission, with his mantra being that it was not enough to own a thoroughbred; one also had to foal and raise one. He went about it with many detractors from other states attempting to discourage him in his quest.
That the horse industry in his home state of Florida wasn’t looked upon with the same reverence as the ones in Kentucky and Maryland didn’t deter him. Not until after World War II did horse farms begin to occupy the Florida landscape, and Wolfson was convinced he could carve out a niche in a sport that was rife with conservative tradition. The focal area was Ocala, in the north-central section of the state, where it was some ten degrees cooler than the heat and humidity of South Florida. That’s where Wolfson began Harbor View Farm in 1960, and many detractors looked with a jaundiced eye upon raising a thoroughbred in a tropical climate, which nettled Wolfson. He was determined to show that horse breeding would be successful under his banner.
In a relatively short time, Wolfson had built his stable with older horses under the guidance of Burley Parke. As a trainer, he was somewhat different, soft-spoken, reserved, and polite in the Andy Griffith mode, but nevertheless respected by his peers. “I’m just an Idaho farm boy,” he would often drawl.
He may have been, but when Wolfson hired him, he knew he had someone special, someone who could take Harbor View to the next level in building a champion stable. Parke had worked for John Marsh, one of the country’s richest men, and won nine major Futurities from 1942 to 1944. Later in the decade, Charles Howard, who owned Seabiscuit, hired Parke to run his farm. Parke developed Noor into one of the greatest thoroughbreds of American racing, who beat the great Citation four times.
After Noor won the Hollywood Cup in 1950, Parke retired. Nine years later his brother, Ivan, convinced him to work for Wolfson. Parke returned to racing and increased the value of Harbor View notably with two horses, Raise A Native and Roman Brother. Unfortunately, on the way to becoming the two-year-old champion, Raise A Native tore a tendon and was forced to retire. And so did Parke soon afterward.
“Raise A Native was as good a colt that has come along in many years,” remarked Parke.
Wolfson was hoping that Affirmed would be another Raise A Native. The trainer he now had to emulate Parke was Barrera. Like Parke, Barrera, too, was different, only more so, an underdog before he reaped noteworthy success in getting Bold Forbes to win the Kentucky Derby in 1976.
It took some doing. Bold Forbes was a strong-willed horse who tended to ease up in his races if nobody was challenging him. In training him for the Derby, Barrera cut two football-shaped holes in the colt’s blinkers so that he could see other horses threatening to pass him.
Barrera’s upbringing was in Cuba. His family lived near Havana’s Oriental Park Racetrack, and as a youngster he found work mucking out stalls and whatever else he could do to help his large family. He had a happy childhood. Not until years later did Barrera leave Cuba after the only horse he owned as a teenager was killed by a severe storm that ravaged the island. He didn’t know a word of English when he headed in 1951 at the age of twenty-seven for Mexico City, where he would at least be comfortable with the language.
After a slow beginning, he found work as a trainer and became literally an overnight success by winning his first five races his first day at the track. However, it wasn’t always that easy after that. One day, years later, Barrera had a disagreement with the racing officials and decided he had enough of Mexico. In 1960, he arrived in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Park as the owner, trainer, groom, hot-walker, and one-man band with a cheap horse named Destructor and little else.
“I was practically broke when I arrived in America,” remembered Barrera. “And, I could hardly speak a word of English.”
Destructor won his first outing in a claiming race, but Barrera lost him when another owner claimed him, leaving Barrera horseless and penniless. Yet, a sympathetic Bill Winfrey loaned Barrera eight horses to get started again, and in 1971 he trained his first American Stakes winner.
Wolfson, who always insisted on exclusivity with his trainers, reached out for Barrera. But the compassionate Cuban didn’t want to desert his ailing owner, Rafael Escudero. He wanted to remain with Escudero and a couple of other old friends from the bleak days when his shoes were worn and his bank account skimpy. Wolfson appreciated Barrera’s honesty and even more so his allegiance to Escudero.
“He was my kind of man,” claimed Wolfson. “When I was looking for a trainer, I remembered Barrera. I asked him to train exclusively for Harbor View Farm, but he told me he had one owner he didn’t want to give up. The man had a malignancy and Laz was afraid he might die if he dropped him. I was so surprised with his loyalty and his feeling. I told him to take part of my horses if he wanted, and he did.”
Wolfson now had Barrera to train Affirmed. Wolfson had purposely planned years earlier for foaling a homebred. On February 21, 1975, a thirteen-year-old modest broodmare named Won’t Tell You foaled Affirmed, a chestnut son by Exclusive Native, a descendant of Native Dancer, the 1953 winner of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Wolfson had purchased Won’t Tell You for only $18,000 in 1972, and except for Affirmed, she never foaled any notable horses.
When Barrera got him as a yearling, Affirmed had begun to develop a personality of his own. Along with his intelligence, he could be curious and quite often a ham when cameras were clicking around him. He was friendly and had a love for people and playfully nipped at them when they came close. He loved attention all right, but Barrera also found him to be relaxed and cooperative.
“Nothing seems to bother him,” said Barrera, smiling. “He listens and does what you ask him to do. I can’t ask no more of him.”
By 1976, Wolfson could look back on eighteen years as an owner.
He began modestly in 1958 with the purchase of four thoroughbreds. The following year he expanded his stable to eleven. By 1960, he established the black and pink colors of Harbor View on a 478-acre expanse in Ocala with Parke, who had a reputation for judging horses, and began to purchase some good ones. One was Roving Minstrel, who cost $100,000 and became the winter book favorite for the 1961 Kentucky Derby. However, misfortune struck. In January of that year Roving Minstrel reared back and tumbled heavily to the ground. His career suddenly and unexpectedly ended with a cerebral hemorrhage.
At the Saratoga sales that summer, Parke bought a colt named Raise A Native out of Native Dancer for $39,000. Burley took personal charge of the well-defined chestnut, which began to attract attention with a series of impressive wins as a two-year-old. However, bad luck again surfaced. After a big win in the Great American Stakes on July 17, 1963, Raise A Native tore his tendon in his next start at Monmouth Park, which ended his career.
Wolfson was undismayed. Two years later, Parke closed a deal on a gelding named Roman Brother for only $23,000, who turned out to be the Horse of the Year in 1965. However, two years later Wolfson’s legal troubles surfaced in the financial world, which created a setback for him at Harbor View. Wolfson had to spend considerable time away from horse matters to defend himself in the legal system and in an eventual court trial that resulted in his conviction.
Wolfson’s financial empire, at one time one of the richest of any American, had dwindled in the nine years since he was incarcerated in a federal prison for a white-collar crime that had all the appearances of a trumped-up charge. He was targeted because of his acumen in acquiring corporations and generating huge profits with them. He was feared yet respected by the Wall Street barons and was looked upon as a corporate raider.
His menial crime was that he sold unregistered securities in one of his companies. It was manna from heaven for the Wall Street crowd and they didn’t hesitate to alert the Securities and Exchange Commission. Wolfson never denied the charge and explained that none of the shareholders lost any money. He was sentenced to a year in prison, paid a substantial fine, and was released after ten months.
That’s why Affirmed’s prospects meant so much to him. He perceived them as vindication, but he would have to wait one more year to see if Affirmed would deliver.…
Copyright © 2011 by Lou Sahadi