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From the moment they first galloped head-to-head in Saratoga Springs, the two chestnut colts showed they were the stuff of racing legend. Alydar, all muscle with a fearsome closing kick, was already the popular favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Affirmed, deceptively laid-back streamlined elegance, was powered forward by his steely determination not to settle for second place.
In the Sport of Kings, the Triple Crown is the most valued prize, requiring a horse to win not just ...
From the moment they first galloped head-to-head in Saratoga Springs, the two chestnut colts showed they were the stuff of racing legend. Alydar, all muscle with a fearsome closing kick, was already the popular favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Affirmed, deceptively laid-back streamlined elegance, was powered forward by his steely determination not to settle for second place.
In the Sport of Kings, the Triple Crown is the most valued prize, requiring a horse to win not just one race, but three: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. And 1978 would not be just for the record books, but also one of the greatest dramas ever played out in the racing world.
There were names to conjure with, worthy of the Sport of Kings. The bloodline of Native Dancer. The teen wonderboy jockey Steve Cauthen. The once unbeatable Calumet Farm—the Damn Yankees of the racing world—now in eclipse and hoping for a comeback. The newcomer Harbor View Farm—owned by brash financier Louis Wolfson, who wouldn’t let even a conviction and a prison sentence for securities violations stand in the way of his dreams of glory. And the racetracks themselves: Belmont, Saratoga, Pimlico. And, of course, Churchill Downs.
It has been thirty-five years since Affirmed and Alydar fought for the Triple Crown, thirty-five years when no other horse has won it. Duel for the Crown brings this epic battle to life. Not just two magnificent Thoroughbreds but the colorful human personalities surrounding them, caught up in an ever-intensifying battle of will and wits that lasted until the photo finish of the final Triple Crown race . . . and Alydar and Affirmed leaped into the history books.
Duel for the Crown
From the moment he was foaled early in 1961, Raise a Native was the kind of strapping specimen that Thoroughbred empires get built around. Bounding to his feet quicker than most foals, he was soon out zipping around the rolling bluegrass pastures of Kentucky’s storied Spendthrift Farm and showing off his catlike agility amid bursts of stunning speed. Veteran horsemen at racing’s preeminent breeding farm marveled at how, even as a baby, he had “the look of eagles.” More important, he had the look of his sire: Native Dancer, the legendary iron-gray colt who flashed through America’s consciousness in the early fifties as the first equine TV star. What captured the imagination was the electrifying way “The Gray Ghost” won all but one of his twenty-two career starts, lagging way behind until the top of the stretch and then charging past his rivals as if they were moving in slow motion.
Raise a Native, aside from his chestnut color, was the spitting image of his famous father, with the promise of the same blinding speed. Small wonder that, when he was auctioned at the 1961 Keeneland Fall Sale, Raise a Native commanded $22,000—the most anyone had ever bid on a weanling. Within nine months, he would be brought to auction once again, his new owner hoping to turn a quick profit on his exceptional looks, his value having grown in direct proportion to his developing musculature.
The colt was just the kind of prospect Louis Wolfson was shopping for as he built up his fledgling stable. An impoverished immigrant’s son who had parlayed a Florida junkyard into an industrial empire, Wolfson became rich as a Wall Street financier and infamous as a takeover artist astutely waging proxy fights over America’s corporate giants. Credited with inventing the hostile tender offer, he was branded by Time magazine as one of America’s first corporate raiders.
Wolfson was well into his forties when he was advised by his doctor to find a relaxing pastime to relieve the stress of high finance and, given his longtime interest in watching and betting on Thoroughbreds, he decided to try his hand at owning and breeding them. Although he started modestly by purchasing half a dozen middling horses in 1958, he soon threw himself into the racing game with the same wheeler-dealer fervor he’d honed in his boardroom battles.
By the following year, Wolfson had unleashed a bold assault on the Thoroughbred establishment every bit as audacious as his hostile takeover bids. The more the racing elite dismissed him as a novice too naïve to realize how many generations of bloodlines and sweat were needed to build a winning stable, the more he relished the challenge. Any self-made millionaire fearless enough to take on the likes of Montgomery Ward and American Motors wasn’t about to be cowed by Kentucky’s Thoroughbred institutions—not even mighty Calumet Farm, the racing and breeding dynasty sprawling over a thousand acres of prime Lexington bluegrass.
On his mission to show up the skeptics, Wolfson’s first real order of business was to recruit a trainer capable of instantly putting his new Florida-based stable on the map. He reached out to Burley Parke, a masterful trainer who at fifty-four was already nine relaxing years into retirement at his own California ranch. Renowned as “The Futurity King,” Parke had earned his nickname because of his uncanny eye and unsurpassed talent for bringing along young stock, having schooled a remarkable nine futurity stakes two-year-old champions. When Wolfson tried to coax him out of retirement to work the same wonders for his nascent Harbor View Farm stable, the erstwhile trainer politely demurred. Wolfson persisted with the same powers of persuasion that had forged many a Wall Street deal, finally luring Parke with an unheard-of $100,000 guaranteed salary—more than twelve times what the standard trainer’s fee of 10 percent would have been worth based on Harbor View’s paltry 1959 winnings of $80,161.
In his first year on the job, Parke saddled fifty-four winners and earned $679,865 in purses—making Wolfson’s three-year-old stable the nation’s third-leading money winner of 1960, behind only the aristocratic empires of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and Harry F. Guggenheim. As unprecedented as Wolfson’s rocket-like rise was, he was impatient to push to the next level. He craved that one yearling that could win the Kentucky Derby as a three-year-old and then become the foundation sire on which a breeding empire could be built. That’s the dream Wolfson was chasing when he sent Parke to Saratoga, New York, in August 1962.
No sooner had Parke arrived at the annual Saratoga Yearling Sale than a copper-colored colt with superb conformation caught his eye. He immediately raced to the phone to call his boss. Picking up the receiver in his office, Wolfson was surprised by the breathless enthusiasm emanating from the phone. Taciturn and reserved by nature, the soft-spoken Parke was not given to hyperbole. But now, he was positively gushing about a Native Dancer son muscled like a gladiator and polished like a shiny new penny. The trainer raved about Raise a Native’s striking good looks, his surprisingly mature body, his huge and powerful hindquarters, and, to top it all off, his impressive pedigree. To be sure, Parke didn’t have to say anything about the colt’s sire because everyone knew everything there was to know about Native Dancer, a TV idol and cultural icon so famous that he’d been the first of his species to grace the cover of Time magazine. Parke did, however, have plenty to report about the colt’s dam: a modest stakes-winning sprinter named Raise You, from whom Raise a Native inherited not only his chestnut coat but also a dose of pure speed. All of which made Raise a Native the most coveted of the ten Native Dancer yearlings parading through the plush auction ring that summer.
Parke told Wolfson that this horse, seemingly born on the steps of the throne, was exactly what they’d been searching for. What he needed to know was how high he could bid.
“Spend what you need to,” Wolfson replied without missing a beat.
The bidding was fast and furious. When the hammer finally fell at $39,000 (more than three times the Saratoga Yearling Sale’s record average), Wolfson had the star he needed to build his farm around.
One thing Parke couldn’t see in the auction ring would become painfully obvious as soon as the robust colt bounded off the van at Harbor View Farm in Ocala, Florida. Raise a Native, it turned out, had inherited something beyond physical brilliance from his famous father: a temperamental disposition. On and off the track, Native Dancer had always done just as he pleased. And now, Raise a Native was proving he was all that and more: rambunctious, headstrong, stubborn. Right from the start, he seemed determined to test Parke’s renowned patience. No matter how unruly his horses were, Parke had always remained unflappable and unwavering, all the while getting even the most stubborn student to submit to his will. The question was, could Parke perform the same kind of magic with Wolfson’s unruly yearling?
Each morning upon his arrival at Hialeah Park’s backside barn, the trainer would be reminded just how much of a challenge he faced. It would start the moment Raise a Native’s groom brought out the tack. As soon as the colt spotted the saddle, his eyes would roll back until the whites were showing, his nostrils would flare, and all his muscles would begin to quiver. He would be bouncing around so much that it took a herculean effort just to get the saddle on his back, let alone girthed up. All this even before he could be led out to the track to begin his workday. Almost all the Harbor View exercise riders refused to even mount the volatile, uncontrollable colt. Only a wet-behind-the-ears seventeen-year-old was brave enough to agree to get on him and face the bronc rides disguised as workouts.
Parke was becoming more and more exasperated with each passing day. Having tried every trick he knew, he was beginning to wonder if it was time for the strategy of last resort: castration. He worried that if they didn’t geld the colt, Raise a Native would never be calm enough to load into a starting gate, much less run a race.
One day, he called Wolfson to explain the situation. “I’m afraid we may need to geld this colt to settle him down,” Parke said quietly. “It may be the only way to get him trained.”
Wolfson took a deep breath, shrugging in resignation. As much as he wanted a Kentucky Derby winner, what he really desired was a colt that would later make his mark in the breeding shed. But if the horse couldn’t be made to run on the track, no one would want to breed to him anyway. Finally, Wolfson let out a sigh and said, “OK, Burley, do what you need to do.”
Even with Wolfson’s permission, Parke was hesitant. He feared that castration might be a huge mistake, robbing future generations of an influential sire. So he decided to postpone the decision until the next time he saw Wolfson in person.
On a beautiful Saturday morning in January 1963, Wolfson, as was his weekly ritual, packed up his three sons and headed over to Hialeah Park to watch his horses work. He was especially interested in seeing Raise a Native. By the time he arrived, the colt was already saddled and making his way from the shed row to the track. Raise a Native seemed on his best behavior prancing down the bridle path on his way to be schooled by Parke at the starting gate. If the inquisitive colt seemed to be paying more attention to the flock of flamingos in the infield than to his rider’s commands, at least he was being so uncharacteristically well-behaved that the exercise boy, for a change, managed to stay in the saddle the whole way without getting thrown. Upon reaching the starting gate, however, Raise a Native, as if on cue, played one of his favorite tricks. He dropped to the ground, rolled onto his side, and lay motionless. This time, Parke was ready. He jumped off his stable pony and ran over to an attending groom to grab a bucket of ice-cold water, which he promptly dumped over the prone colt’s head. Startled, Raise a Native jumped up and shook his head violently, sending a spray of droplets over everyone around him. He stood quietly while Parke lifted the exercise boy back into the saddle, then he meekly walked over to the starting gate. The colt knew he had finally met his match.
The battle won, Parke could now focus on getting Raise a Native ready not for a vet appointment but for a post time. From that moment on, the teacher had an apt, attentive pupil to train for the two-year-old prodigy’s highly anticipated maiden race.
Barely a month later, debuting in a three-furlong “baby” race at Hialeah, Raise a Native started to fulfill his promise right from the bell, flying over the three-eighths of a mile to win by a full six lengths. He was then shipped to New York, where he would take up residence on Belmont Park’s backside in preparation for his next big step up. It didn’t take long for his early-morning works to start drawing attention from the New York beat reporters.
One day that spring, the dean of American turf writers, Charles Hatton, was sitting in his aerie above the Belmont press box watching the morning works as usual when he glimpsed a powerful chestnut flying by. Hatton immediately started pounding out the colt’s public introduction on his battered Royal typewriter: “Raise a Native worked down the Belmont backstretch this morning. The trees swayed.”
If the trees were swaying at Belmont, they were positively bending over at nearby Aqueduct Racetrack once Raise a Native made his New York racing debut there. Over the next few months, he handily won three straight races in track-record times, each performance more spectacular than the previous. The last two, both Aqueduct stakes races, made him something of a phenomenon. Fans started flocking to “The Big A,” crowding around the paddock to catch a glimpse of this rising-star son of Native Dancer now making a name for himself.
Even the most hardened horsemen were becoming gushing fans. “In all the years I have been training horses,” Hirsch Jacobs, history’s winningest trainer, marveled, “Raise a Native is the best two-year-old I’ve ever seen race. I believe he will be one of our all-time greats.”
As it was, Raise a Native was already being compared to his own sire, to Citation, even to the incomparable Man o’ War. Joe Hirsch, Hatton’s respected colleague at The Morning Telegraph, reached all the way back to the nineteenth century’s most fabled champion, calling Raise a Native “the second coming of Hindoo.”
To the understated Parke, it was enough that Raise a Native was “the greatest young horse I’ve ever trained.” The only remaining question was whether the colt possessed the stamina to stay the Kentucky Derby’s mile and a quarter, especially given that his sprinter’s style emulated that of his pacesetting dam more than that of his fast-closing sire. Though he had sped to four wins without ever seeing a horse in front of him, he still hadn’t gone longer than five and a half furlongs. As part of Parke’s plan to answer the nagging doubts incrementally, he took Raise a Native to New Jersey that summer for the Sapling Stakes, a step up at six furlongs.
Prepping for the race, the unthinkable happened. At the end of a fast morning work at Monmouth Park the day before the stakes, the prohibitive favorite pulled up lame with a bowed tendon. He limped off the track, barely able to take any weight on his left foreleg. Parke called Wolfson with the bad news: Raise a Native bowed a tendon and would never race again. Crestfallen as he was, Wolfson didn’t second-guess his trainer or curse his own bad luck. He just said, “Burley, are you going to be OK?” The two continued on for a while, each consoling the other over the premature retirement of what they both considered to be the horse of a lifetime. Just before hanging up, Wolfson injected some words of hope. “Don’t worry,” he said. “One of these days, we’ll grab on to another one.”
LITTLE DID WOLFSON know that Raise a Native would make that happen, too.
The dreams left unfulfilled on the racetrack, where Raise a Native had streaked like a shooting star, would have to blossom in the breeding shed if they were to become a reality. Although his meteoric career flamed out almost as quickly as he ran, Raise a Native had shown enough brilliance to still be in high demand as a stud horse. Because of his precocious talent and the early maturity that made this two-year-old look twice his age, breeders from Kentucky to England were lining up for his services even though he had yet to produce a single foal. They flooded Spendthrift Farm, where he’d been sent to stand at stud, with more than a hundred applications to buy breedings at $5,000 a pop.
When Raise a Native’s first foal crop hit the ground running in 1965, that stud fee would seem like a bargain. His foals were uniformly attractive and well conformed. He was stamping them with his good looks and his athletic ability, no matter what mare they were out of. Four would eventually become stakes winners, chief among them Wolfson’s own Exclusive Native.
Exclusive Native was a striking chestnut out of Wolfson’s foundation dam, Exclusive, herself a moderate runner who turned out to be an exceptional broodmare with five stakes winners to her credit. It didn’t take long to see that the sleek colt had inherited the signature speed of his sire line. He won his first three starts as a two-year-old, including the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, but lost his next four before sustaining a slight cannon-bone fracture that sidelined him until the following summer. He returned to win the Arlington Classic, but was injured again in his next start on the same Monmouth Park track where his sire’s career had ended. As with Raise a Native, Wolfson had no choice but to retire his foundation sire’s son to stud. That broke Wolfson’s heart because Exclusive Native had earned his own special place there as the first Harbor View homebred to shine on the track.
Despite all Harbor View’s trips to the winner’s circle and Wolfson’s ranking among the nation’s leading owners and breeders, he wasn’t able to enjoy his success as much as he might have. For most of the decade, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had been coming after him for alleged securities violations. In 1966, just as Raise a Native’s second foal crop hit the ground, Wolfson was indicted for selling unregistered stock. A year later, he was convicted and sentenced to a year in federal prison.
The conviction almost ended his career in racing. To pay his overwhelming legal fees, Wolfson had to sell off most of his horses, many at fire-sale prices. Exclusive was sold outright as Wolfson dissolved his entire broodmare band. Raise a Native was sold for a record $2.6 million to a syndicate of breeders organized by Spendthrift. Wolfson did hang on to two shares each in Raise a Native and Exclusive Native, entitling him to two breedings a year per stallion if he ever got back into racing. But with the loss of his foundation stock, Wolfson’s racing dreams seemed just as far gone.
On the eve of the 1969 Kentucky Derby, Wolfson entered the minimum-security federal penitentiary in Florida’s Panhandle. Trading in his usual custom-tailored suit for a dull-gray uniform, inmate number 3362 would watch that spring’s Triple Crown races on a black-and-white TV in the prison’s dayroom with a gaggle of thieves, con artists, bootleggers, and draft dodgers. It was bittersweet to see a familiar-looking chestnut become Raise a Native’s most successful son on the track. Majestic Prince, the aptly named pride of Raise a Native’s second foal crop, bore all the usual signatures of the sire line: a coppery coat, that strapping build, the lightning speed. Bred by Spendthrift and sold as a yearling for a record $250,000, Majestic Prince was proof positive that Raise a Native could be just as effective at stud as he’d been on the track. After winning the Derby by a neck and the Preakness Stakes by a head, Majestic Prince ran the Belmont Stakes despite a tendon injury and was soundly beaten by the rival he’d outdueled for both previous Triple Crown jewels, Arts and Letters. Watching the race that ended Majestic Prince’s career from prison, Wolfson couldn’t escape the feeling of déjà vu, struck anew by the Raise a Native curse of unsoundness. He would keep that in mind if he ever got back into breeding.
Released from prison after serving nine months and a day, Wolfson spent the next year deciding whether to rebuild his stable from scratch. Ironically, he was listed as the nation’s leading breeder in 1970 and ’71, thanks to the racing stock he had bred but largely had to sell off. When Wolfson finally decided that he wanted to use racing to redeem himself and to restore his reputation, he threw himself back into it with his standard drive and a renewed enthusiasm.
This time, he would have by his side a racing insider: his new wife, Patrice, the only daughter of the legendary trainer Hirsch Jacobs. Theirs was a marriage of opposites, the perfect union of a real-life racing princess who had been born to the sport and an upstart outsider who had bought his way into it. The marriage of blood and money established the foundation for a great Thoroughbred partnership, one that would lead directly to the mating of Affirmed’s sire and dam.
The newlyweds wasted no time getting down to matchmaking. Wolfson was particularly glad that he had held on to two shares apiece in Raise a Native and Exclusive Native. In the wake of Majestic Prince’s star turn, Raise a Native’s stock had skyrocketed. He was now deemed the top stud at the nation’s top stud farm. Exclusive Native was also making a name for himself at Spendthrift, with a bay colt from his first foal crop, Our Native, having taken third behind Secretariat and Sham in the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
For the following year, Wolfson planned to send two mares to Raise a Native and two to Exclusive Native up at Spendthrift. He had recently purchased a mare named Won’t Tell You, in foal to Raise a Native, for a modest $18,000. Beyond the forthcoming Raise a Native foal, Won’t Tell You had the advantage of being closely related to Our Native’s dam, both of them sired by the versatile champion Crafty Admiral. That in itself might have made her a good choice for Exclusive Native, but Patrice had noticed that both Exclusive Native and Won’t Tell You shared a common ancestor—the brilliant French distance runner and sire Teddy—just a few generations back. She thought that by doubling up on Teddy, they might produce a strong horse possessing plenty of stamina. Beyond the solid pedigree, Won’t Tell You had proven a sturdy and durable, if not particularly fast, racehorse. She may not exactly have burned up the track—running $5,000 claiming races, winning rarely, and earning a total of just $21,000—but she had survived her twenty-six career starts without injury to retire sound. Although Won’t Tell You had yet to produce a stakes contender, Patrice had a hunch it was just a matter of finding the right sire to nick with her bloodlines.
So what if it looked like an ill-arranged marriage of royalty and a commoner? The Wolfsons made the match and booked Won’t Tell You to Exclusive Native for the 1974 breeding season.
JUST AS Raise a Native had before him, Exclusive Native made himself right at home in Spendthrift Farm’s lush bluegrass paddocks, plush stallion barn, and, of course, bustling breeding shed. From the time each was vanned to the Thoroughbred capital of Lexington, Kentucky, home became the 6,100 rolling acres of prime bluegrass that made up America’s largest horse farm—and, more to the point, America’s leading horse factory.
To Leslie Combs II, the horse trader who had founded Spendthrift Farm on just 127 acres in 1937 and then transformed Thoroughbred breeding from a genteel pastime into a dog-eat-dog business, they were fields of dreams. Notorious as “the master salesman of the century,” Combs wasn’t just peddling horseflesh—he was selling lottery tickets to the winner’s circle and generations of proven bloodlines. He did it with all the charm of a politician, introducing himself in his thick Bourbon drawl as “good ol’ Cousin Leslie” and throwing lavish soirees for well-heeled clientele that ranged from Fred Astaire to Elizabeth Arden, from Lord Derby to Captain Guggenheim, from Louis B. Mayer to Louis Wolfson.
If the fourteen-room colonial mansion where Cousin Leslie served mint juleps to his wealthy clients was like the second coming of Tara, it was nothing compared to the Southern hospitality he offered to the farm’s richest stallions. Designed like no other stallion barn, it was a large, low-slung, U-shaped building constructed of sandstone and steel, with sixteen spacious stalls fanning around a grass courtyard adorned with multicolored flowers and manicured shrubs.
Dubbed the “Nashua Motel,” it was built in the late 1950s to create a proper home for Nashua right after Combs made him history’s first million-dollar stallion. Combs had bought the 1955 Horse of the Year at auction for a record $1.25 million and put together a group of investors to split the cost by divvying up the breeding rights into thirty-two shares. That popularized the syndication of stallions—a practice Combs had innovated after World War II when he’d sold a few friends some breeding shares to spread around the risk in a horse he’d just bought—and propelled it into the space age.
For years after the big bay was retired to stand at Spendthrift, he remained the king of the eponymous Nashua Motel, reigning from his prime stall at one end of the U-shaped stallion barn. But now he was no longer the top stud. That distinction belonged to the chestnut stallion occupying the stall directly across the courtyard at the other end of the U: Raise a Native, whose $2.6 million syndication had made him the richest stud. In a nearby stall was his son Exclusive Native, himself syndicated for a cool $1.9 million. Each time one of them got a phone call in the stallion barn, it meant he was being summoned for another expensive date.
On a cool day in March 1974, the phone rang for Exclusive Native. A few minutes later, his groom led him from his stall, both hands gripping the lead rope. Neck curled and nostrils flared, the muscular stallion jigged impatiently next to the man as they made their way down the path. It didn’t take long for them to cover the fifty yards to the breeding shed where so many champion racehorses had gotten their start.
A cottage-sized white building with green trim, sloping roof, and large sliding doors at either end, the unassuming shed didn’t look like the kind of place that could launch stakes winners worth millions. Visitors whimsically referred to it as “the bedroom,” but the men who ran it with the efficiency of a factory assembly line never called it anything but “the breeding shed.” With an eight-man crew that operated like a precision drill team, the average time for a breeding was six minutes (the record of three minutes having been set during one hectic hour and a half when thirty mares were bred to thirty stallions). During the peak season from mid-February to late June, the breeding shed stayed open seven days a week, night and day. Its interior was lined with thick green foam-filled mats that looked like they’d been borrowed from a high school gym. Covering one full wall above the mats, brass nameplates immortalized all the stakes winners conceived there—including Exclusive Native himself.
Exclusive Native and his handler passed through the open front door, the stud shank jingling as the stallion tossed his head in anticipation of his latest blind date. Won’t Tell You stood in the center of the shed awaiting his arrival, her handler stroking her neck to keep her calm. Before she’d been brought in through the back door, Won’t Tell You had had a conversation with the farm’s teaser stallion to determine whether she was hormonally “hot” enough to be receptive to the stud horse himself. As the teaser sniffed her all over, nuzzling and nipping, she’d squatted submissively, tail lifted high, exposing herself. She was ready. One of the crewmen had wrapped a gauze strip around the top of her tail, cleaned her with warm water, then led her to the breeding shed.
As soon as Exclusive Native spotted the mare, his penis dropped and started to enlarge. A crewman plunged a handful of cotton into a steel bucket that was emblazoned EXCLUSIVE NATIVE and filled with warm water. Grasping the stallion’s swollen member, the man gently washed it, taking care to stand clear of any cow-kicking hooves. Once the stallion was ready, his groom led him over to Won’t Tell You. Two crewmen quickly positioned themselves on opposite sides of her haunches, one holding her tail out of the way, the other ready to help guide the stallion in if necessary.
Once Exclusive Native got the signal from his handler, he immediately reared up and mounted Won’t Tell You, grabbing on to her shoulders with his front legs and resting his muzzle on her neck. After a few primal thrusts, his tail flagged. He slid off and was led out the front door, his posture now docile.
In the few seconds it had taken, all the months of the Wolfsons’ painstaking planning had been consummated. Now it would be a waiting game: waiting the thirty days to see if the mare took and was pregnant, waiting the eleven months for a foal to grow inside her, waiting the two years to see if the baby had what it took to be a racehorse.
LESS THAN A month later, Raise a Native was peacefully munching hay in his stall at the Nashua Motel when yet another phone call came from the breeding shed. If Exclusive Native’s mating had represented a match between a prince and a commoner, Raise a Native’s was to be a royal wedding fit for a king and a queen. He was being summoned by blue-blood racing royalty to breed to the foundation dam of Calumet Farm, the most dominant dynasty ever to reign over The Sport of Kings.
Calumet was, to put it simply, Camelot.
To anyone passing through Lexington in the heart of Bluegrass Country, Calumet Farm—just a gallop down the road from Spendthrift—must have looked like horse heaven. It covered 1,038 lush emerald acres of rolling bluegrass and sloping meadows, crisscrossed with sixty-four miles of freshly painted white plank fences, dotted with thirty-seven white barns and sheds trimmed in devil’s red, anchored by a colonial mansion and matching colonial stallion barn, all of it connected by six miles of snaking country lanes shaded by towering oaks and sycamores.
Beyond its breathtaking physical beauty, Calumet Farm was a state of mind. An authentic American institution, it was the epitome of Bluegrass heritage and racing tradition. The mere mention of the word “Calumet” conjured up images of regal Kentucky Derby champions draped in garlands of roses and of joyous owners graciously accepting trophy upon trophy in winner’s circles across America.
Lording over it all was Lucille Markey, queen of Calumet, matriarch of the dynasty, grande dame of racing. Her first husband, Warren Wright, had built the stable from scratch in the early 1930s and brought it to national prominence in 1941 when a flaming chestnut homebred named Whirlaway captured the Triple Crown and the public imagination. By the time Citation repeated the feat in 1948 and became racing’s first equine millionaire, Calumet Farm had become a household name across America.
No stable ever dominated racing as Calumet Farm did from 1941 to 1961. Calumet led the nation in race earnings twelve of those years, topped the breeders’ list fourteen times, and won the Kentucky Derby an amazing seven times—all the while carrying The Sport of Kings through its golden age as America’s true national pastime.
Calumet was to racing what the New York Yankees were to baseball—one of the greatest dynasties the sports world had ever seen. The devil’s red and deep blue silks of Calumet became as fashionably familiar across America as navy blue Yankee pinstripes. Frustrated horsemen at rival stables—echoing baseball’s rallying cry of “Break up the Yankees”—would actually mutter, “Break up Calumet.”
In the end, Calumet would break up all on its own. Upon Warren Wright’s death in 1950, his widow, Lucille, inherited enough good stock to lead the breeders’ earnings list for seven straight years as if fulfilling a Calumet birthright. The problem was that the stable’s best bloodlines were petering out and a gradual decline in the farm’s fortunes seemed inevitable. Calumet’s collapse, however, was so sudden as to be shocking. The nation’s leading money winner in 1961, Calumet plummeted out of the top ten the very next year. By the mid-1970s, the farm was in free fall, its devil’s red and blue silks fading almost completely from view. By 1974, annual race earnings had plunged from its record-smashing $1.4 million in 1947 to just $117,109.
Through it all, Lucille Markey never lost heart. She was sure that somehow Calumet could recover and even recapture its old glory. But she also knew she was getting on in years, her eightieth birthday fast approaching, her carefully coiffed white hair making her the very image of the grand Southern matriarch. If she was going to find a way to restore Calumet to its rightful place, it was now or never.
The Calumet dynasty had been built on an old racing maxim: “Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.” But with the loss of its top stallion, the farm no longer had the best to breed to the best. The only saving grace was that it did still have its great mare lines. In particular, there was the line descended from Blue Delight, a multiple stakes winner who was the source of several generations of swift fillies culminating in Sweet Tooth. A lop-eared and levelheaded bay, Sweet Tooth had modest success on the track, winning ten of forty-one races and placing second in a stakes for two-year-olds, before being retired to Calumet’s broodmare band. After Sweet Tooth foaled a good-looking filly in 1973, Markey became hopeful that if she bred the mare to the right stallion, she’d have Calumet’s next star.
The only question was which stallion to breed her to. With nothing of note in Calumet’s own barn, Markey was now relying on outside stallions. Six years earlier, she had bought two breeding shares in Raise a Native. The first of those for 1974 would go to Sweet Tooth. All she had to do was hop on a van and ride the twelve picturesque miles from Calumet to Spendthrift Farm.
RAISE A NATIVE’S date with Sweet Tooth went much like his son Exclusive Native’s tryst with Won’t Tell You had gone a month earlier in the very same breeding shed. It was, however, more intense.
By now, Raise a Native had grown into himself, nearly 16.3 hands and massive. Ripped like a bodybuilder, with exceptional bone, he was far heavier than the more elegant Exclusive Native. He was also much harder to handle, not just because of his powerful build but also because of his dominant nature. He was far more aggressive than his son, both in the breeding shed and on the way to it. He would jog boisterously at the side of his handler, sometimes bouncing around so much that he’d crowd the man off the walkway. Once in the breeding shed, he was all business. The stud crew called him “the six-second horse”—a nod to the four seconds he shaved off his son’s record time in accomplishing the deed. That speed and efficiency, along with his exceptional fertility, made him a stallion manager’s dream.
On this particular day at Spendthrift, Raise a Native, as usual, needed just one six-second mounting of the Calumet mare to get the job done. Like his son, he left the breeding shed contentedly, eyes glazed and, for now at least, docile.
Both stallions had planted their seeds. Of the more than fifty thousand mares bred that year, only about forty thousand would manage to conceive, of which only thirty thousand would produce foals the next year, of which maybe ten thousand would ever get to the racetrack, of which just eleven would make it to Churchill Downs for the 1978 Kentucky Derby. Given those astronomical odds against producing a single great champion, what was the likelihood that history’s fiercest rivals would both be conceived in the same breeding shed within a month of one another?
The Wolfsons, playing a longshot hunch by breeding the top stallion’s son with their own modest mare, recognized that a horse like Affirmed comes along more by magic than by plan. In contrast, Markey, playing the percentages by crossing the top stallion with her own royal family’s foundation dam, had great expectations that her plan would produce a horse just like Alydar.
Either way, the stakes could not have been higher. For Lou Wolfson, it meant nothing less than personal redemption. For Lucille Markey, it was a last chance to restore the glory that had once been Calumet’s—from the dynastic racing tradition to the mythical aura that had made it Camelot.
Posted May 29, 2014
The rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar is the sort of competition the ‘King of Sports’ has not seen in a very long time. Indeed, the drought in Triple Crown winners has left racing fans reminiscing for days of old when two great thoroughbreds sped through the history books with their amazing speed, ability, and desire to win.
The battle to the 1978 Triple Crown was more than a simple contest between various horses, and the top breeding farms in Kentucky. This was the year that saw two royally bred colts, one by Raise a Native (THE sire of winning race horses in the late 60s and 70s), and the other a grandson of the illustrious sire, challenge each other all the way to that May day at Churchill Downs. Both horses were bred to be champions, but only one would win it all.
Alydar, the son of Raise a Native, was born at Calumet Farm, and while the famous facility was not enjoying the wealth of winners it once had, it was still considered racing royalty. Alydar was the chosen one, the one who would bring the farm back to prominence. Affirmed, meanwhile, was a Florida boy, born at a new farm, founded with “new” money. He, nor the farm’s owner, Lou Wolfson, were what the Kentucky racing aristocracy considered part of the in-crowd. They would have to prove themselves every step of the way and Alydar would be there each and every time to challenge the upstart.
Duel for the Crown is a true gem for racing fans. More than a synopsis of the races, this book details the lives of all those involved, from Raise a Native to the young phenom Steve Cauthen. The authors, one a sportswriter, the other a writer and horse trainer, show their familiarity with the world of racing as they chronicle the events that led up to Affirmed winning the Triple Crown. The look into the life of Raise a Native at the start of the book supplied the needed background to understand just what the owners and trainers saw in these two horses before they hit the racetrack. Lots of quotes from those involved help spice up the telling. The book covers everything involved in the build-up to the '78 Triple Crown, including the history of Calumet, the strategies of trainers and jockeys, and the temperaments of the horses. After reading this book, you will have a new appreciation for both Affirmed and Alydar. The only thing that would have made this book an even more enjoyable read would have been more photos; there are very few in this book.
Quill says: A fantastic read for racing fans that brings the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar to life.
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