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The two chestnut colts thunder down the homestretch, galloping side by side and head-to-head, their hoofbeats and heartbeats pounding in perfect synchrony. Gracefully skimming along on the rail, Affirmed—streamlined and elegant, his coat gleaming in the late-afternoon sun like burnished bronze—controls the pace like a frontrunner who simply hates to be headed. Breathing down his neck and eating up ground on the outside with each powerful stride, Alydar—bigger, burlier, and brawnier, his muscles rippling through a coat that glistens a rich dark chocolate against Affirmed’s butterscotch— presses relentlessly while gearing up to unleash his fearsome closing kick. As they thunder deep into Saratoga’s historic homestretch, there is much riding on this stakes race that annually presents the proving ground for horse racing’s brightest young hopefuls. The very name of the race—The Hopeful Stakes—evokes the dream shared by everyone who has ever bred or bought a Thoroughbred in pursuit of the sport’s holy grail, the Kentucky Derby. As the most prestigious race for twoyearolds at America’s oldest and grandest racetrack, the Hopeful boasts a storied tradition as the debutante ball introducing the public to a who’s who of budding legends—from Man o’ War to Native Dancer to Secretariat to…
Of the 28,946 Thoroughbreds foaled throughout North America in 1975, Alydar had been anointed the chosen one from the moment he hit the Kentucky bluegrass running. As the prince of Calumet Farm, heir to revive the dynasty that had for decades lorded over The Sport of Kings, Alydar was practically fitted for the Triple Crown from the time of his royal birth. Affirmed may have shared rich bloodlines with him, both of them descendants of Native Dancer, but Alydar was the one most clearly bred for greatness. The 1977 Hopeful Stakes would represent his first big step on the trail leading to the winner’s circle at the 1978 Kentucky Derby, with the bettors at Saratoga sending him off as the even-money favorite.
But now, with Alydar and Affirmed locked in a pitched battle down the Saratoga stretch, it suddenly dawns on everyone that there is not just one Derby horse in this year’s crop – but two of them. Through the final furlong, as the other hopefuls disappear in their wake, Affirmed has the lead by a head. His jockey, teen sensation Steve Cauthen, taps him up to ask for a little more speed. The acceleration is more powerful than anything Cauthen has ever felt before. The jockey glances to his right and is amazed to see Alydar surging along with them. Alydar challenges, but Affirmed digs in and won’t let him pass. Cauthen realizes right then that this is a special horse, one that will heroically battle to protect his lead. At that moment, Affirmed’s rider already knows something that Alydar and everyone else are about to find out: the race and the rivalry are only just beginning. The battle has been joined. As their eyes lock in the deep stretch, neither Affirmed nor Alydar could know that the image staring back would ultimately define each horse’s legend and legacy. Nor could they know that this instant would signal the genesis of a rivalry that will take them, running like a team of horses, into the 1978 Triple Crown campaign—and beyond, into immortality.