There are Travers memories and then there are Travers memories, those years that stand out above the rest when racing fans look back at the storied history of this Grade 1 event.
One year on anyone’s shortlist when it comes to great races Travers history is 1978: the tenth and final overall meeting of Harbor View Farm’s Affirmed, in his pink and black silks, and Calumet Farm’s Alydar, decked out in the devil’s red and blue.
Their rivalry began at two, and heading into the 1978 Triple Crown series, the score was Affirmed 4, Alydar 2.
Then came the Derby. Affirmed, sent off favorite, won by a length-and-a-half but Alydar had a rough trip, falling back early (trainer John Veitch blamed a rogue clump of dirt that hit him in the eye). He came flying home late but it was not enough.
The Preakness seemed a fairer fight, with Alydar getting right to Affirmed’s throat latch and fighting all the way to the wire, but Affirmed prevailing once again.
Alydar’s two wins against Affirmed had come at Belmont, so connections hoped they’d be able to deny Affirmed’s Triple Crown bid on their colt’s favorite surface, but it was not to be. Affirmed got away with an easy half mile and even though Jorge Velasquez, Alydar’s jock, did what he could to make a test of the race from there, even poking his head in front in the lane, Affirmed surged back to win under left-handed urging from his jock, Steve Cauthen.
Affirmed became a Triple Crown winner. And Alydar earned a distinction at once impressive and a little dubious: he became the first horse to run second in all three Triple Crown races.
And that brings us to the 1978 Travers.
A record crowd of over 50,000 attended. This was the rematch that the racing world wanted to see, an equine version of The Thrilla in Manila, staged in the foothills of the Adirondacks instead of The Philippines.
Alydar had just enough excuses in the previous runs, and his form had surged since whereas Affirmed’s prep run was just OK. Alydar’s connections were confident that this would be their day.
Cauthen was injured, so Laffit Pincay Jr. was brought in to ride Affirmed. The Triple Crown winner went off 7-10, with Alydar even money. There was seemingly other speed signed on with Angel Cordero aboard Shake Shake Shake. It was just a four-runner race but that did nothing to diminish the excitement.
From here, the story goes a little Roshomon, with differing accounts from the key participants but here’s what we know for sure: Shake Shake Shake was getting out into the turn and Affirmed was floated wide. Jorge Velasquez aboard Alydar went to the rail and looked set to make a big move up the inside.
When Shake Shake Shake tired, Pincay took Affirmed back inside and in doing so, he took Alydar’s path, causing him to check sharply and lose several lengths. Caller Chic Anderson even noted that it looked like Alydar was being pulled “out of the race.”
Alydar re-rallied gamely to get second and Affirmed cruised to the wire first, but then the lights on the toteboard began to blink. The resulting inquiry saw Alydar put up to first.
This would end up being the final meeting of the two legends of the turf, and it’s a result that is a bittersweet one for Alydar’s rider to this day.
“Oh my God,” said Jorge Velasquez when I asked him about it this week. “I don’t really like to think back about it.”
“I remember about the three-and-a-half pole or so, Laffit Pincay was in front and he came in sharply, he almost put me over the fence -- I almost ended up in the lake,” Velasquez recalled. “I lost my position completely, but my horse was so good that he came back and he was good enough to finish second.”
In addition to the stewards’ inquiry, Velasquez also claimed foul. “It’s rare that they’re going to take a horse down in that kind of race but it was so obvious, so bad, that they took him down,” Velasquez recalled. “That was not the way that I wanted to win. I was very, very upset but hey, I got the winner anyway. I got the money.”
Velasquez and Pincay were friends going back to their early riding days in Panama. I asked him what he said to his old pal in the immediate aftermath of the race.
“I didn’t want to get into anything with Laffit because we were going to end up throwing punches,” Velasquez said. “I went back to the jock’s room and I went upstairs to the sleeping room and I lied down there and tried to swallow my words. They came looking for me – I was supposed to ride the last race and no one knew where I was. But then I came down and everything was OK.”
When they did eventually speak, according to Velasquez, Pincay shifted blame. “The excuse he gave me was that Cordero’s horse was looking for him, trying to take him out, and he misjudged how far he was coming in. These things happen in racing, but they shouldn’t happen with such a professional rider like Laffit.”
The two have long since made up and remain friends. These days, Velasquez sits on the board of a unique public racing partnership, SportBLX Thoroughbreds. Velasquez is an active partner, consulting with SportBLX founder George Hall.
“I’m glad to help people learn more about racing,” Velasquez said. “I’ve known George for a long time and he’s a very knowledgeable horseman. It’s very exciting to own a horse, even to own part of a horse. It’s a lot of fun.”
SportBLX has Max Player running in this year’s Travers. I asked Velasquez for his thoughts on the promising runner. “He’s got the ability to become a champion. He’s well bred. He comes from a family that’s been very strong going way back including Seattle Slew, Mr. Prospector, all those big horses. And the further he goes, the better it will be for him. He’s well trained by Linda Rice and she knows what she’s doing.”
It certainly wouldn’t be the first surprising result to happen on this track, or even in this race. “This is a different kind of surface and some horses run well on it and some horses don’t run well on it,” he added.
I asked Velasquez how he’d ride Max Player if he were in the irons. “I’d let him relax, sit back, and to try to save all the ground that I can and then come charging at the end,” he said. “Apparently, he does his best running outside but you don’t have to be outside from the beginning. I’d like to see him 2-3 wide, not 5-6 wide. If you go too wide around that turn you don’t have the horse to finish.”
Like Alydar before him, Max Player faces a tough challenge in the Travers but Velasquez believes he’s up for the task. “Those two horses [Tiz the Law and Uncle Chuck] are very tough, but Max Player is developing. He’s getting better and better and I think he’ll be right there.”
Jorge Velasquez hopes this will be another Travers Day to remember – for all the right reasons this time around.