John Veitch led Alydar into horse racing’s greatest rivalry

No matter what adjective you use to describe the Affirmed vs. Alydar rivalry, it’s not enough.

Tremendous. Historic. Unbelievable. Indescribable. None does justice to the smackdowns the two great thoroughbreds staged during their Hall of Fame careers.

Their three Triple Crown races in 1978 are legendary, with Affirmed winning the Kentucky Derby by 1½ lengths, the Preakness by a neck and the Belmont by a head. Alydar is still the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races.

Overall, Affirmed got the better of Alydar seven of the 10 times they met by a total of 10 lengths, with the latter beating his rival in the American Stakes and Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park when they were 2 years old and via disqualification the next year in the Travers Stakes in their final meeting.

I bring up the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry because one of the main characters in the story, Alydar trainer John Veitch, died this week of natural causes at the age of 77 at his home in Lexington, Kentucky. During a training career that spanned 30 years, Veitch trained four champions – fillies Our Mims, Davona Dale and Before Dawn and Sunshine Forever, top male turf horse in 1988. He also trained 1985 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Proud Truth.

Interestingly, Alydar was not among his Eclipse Award winners. The chestnut colt was always overshadowed by Affirmed, the big boy on the block who more often than not wound up with Alydar’s milk money.

If the 1978 Belmont Stakes is not the most thrilling, dramatic horse race of the past 50 years, it’s darn close.

Many thought Alydar had a real shot at denying Affirmed’s Triple Crown bid, but Steve Cauthen, Affirmed’s teenaged jockey, had other ideas.

The two hooked up at the half-mile pole and raced head and head to the wire. Finally, it appeared Alydar might win one of the close ones he characteristically lost. His jockey, Jorge Velasquez, thought so, telling Bob Diskin of ESPN in 2003 that in the final stages of the race he felt the weight of the monkey climbing off his back.

“We got in front, by maybe a head, at the 3/16th pole. I thought (the result) would be different … until very late,” Velasquez said.

Veitch, who retired from training in 2003 and was elected to the United States’ Racing Hall of Fame in 2007, was remembered as a man with “great sportsmanship and positive attitude” by Ed Bowen, who met the trainer in the 1970s while writing for BloodHorse.

John Veitch, who during a Hall of Fame training career from 1974 to 2003 saddled 410 winners from 2,340 starters for earnings of more than $20 million, died Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, of natural causes at the age of 77 at his home in Lexington, Ky. (National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame via AP)

“Here he was with this wonderful horse, but just got beat so often by Affirmed,” Bowen recounted in BloodHorse. “And Alydar was such a brilliant horse … the day after he lost the Belmont, Veitch the next morning was sitting on the foot of his Jaguar on the backstretch of Belmont Park, eating a fudgsicle of all things, and he said, ‘Well, I think I can still beat that horse.’

“He was resilient, very much an accomplished horseman, and just had a great spark about him. Quite a personality.”

During his training career from 1974 to 2003, Veitch saddled 410 winners from 2,340 starters for earnings of $20,097,980, according to Equibase. But the horse of his lifetime was Alydar, who gave it everything he had each time he loaded into the starting gate, especially when Affirmed was loading into the same gate.

“You can’t mention one without the other and that’s how they will always be remembered. You don’t just remember the victor. You remember them both synonymously because every time they met they were right there at the finish and put on a show,” Veitch said during a 2015 interview with Bob Ehalt of BloodHorse.

“You’ll get horses who run against each other a lot, but they are not as consistent as Alydar and Affirmed. That was the wonderful part of the rivalry.”

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Said Cauthen of the two mega-stars’ matchups: “It was like an Ali-Frazier fight. You’ll always remember what was going on in your life when it happened and what you were doing at the time.”

Velazquez told BloodHorse upon hearing of Veitch’s death: “John and I got along very well. He treated me perfect, treated me with respect. He believed in me and my riding, and I believed in him because he was a great trainer. And he was a great person.”

Great person to go along with a great race horse. Quite a pair.

Follow Art Wilson on Twitter @Sham73

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