History and mystery frame the
backdrop of American Pharoah's
attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, the year Affirmed beat Alydar by a head at the Belmont in the third and final leg of what essentially had become a match race between the two.
The chestnut colts formed thoroughbred racing's greatest rivalry but their lives -- and the lives of the ones responsible for their care -- took vastly different directions in the years to come.
Affirmed's Triple Crown lifted his owner, Louis Wolfson, from the indignity and despair of a jail sentence. Alydar's keeper, J.T. Lundy, wound up imprisoned on fraud and other charges related to his debt-ridden Calumet Farm. And he became the subject of never-ending speculation regarding the demise of Alydar.
After his racing career, Alydar was a big moneymaker standing at stud for Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Unbeknownst to many, financial problems were brewing in 1990 for Lundy, Calumet's president. On a November night, it was reported that Alydar had shattered his right hind leg by kicking his stall door and breaking off a metal rail guide for the sliding door.
At the time, Affirmed, also at stud, was sleeping in a nearby stall, Lloyd's of London insurance adjuster Tom Dixon said.
Alydar had surgery but then suffered a broken femur and was put down two days later. Lloyds paid out $32 million on a mortality policy taken out by Calumet. While Affirmed's stature has grown over the decades, Alydar's death remains the subject of much conjecture.
"This is one of the greatest stories ever in Lexington,'' said Lundy's attorney, David McGee. "It's a horse town and they tell horse stories and he's a central figure in one of the great horse stories ever.''
Affirmation for Wolfson
Wolfson, the son of a junk dealer, became a successful Wall Street financier, but in the late 1960s, he was convicted of reportedly selling unregistered stock, perjury and obstruction. He served 9 months in a federal prison.
"It really destroyed the man,'' said his son, Stephen. "His name meant more than anything else to him. That was such a blemish, even though it was a white-collar crime or whatever you want to call it.''
But Louis Wolfson's spirits later were lifted by Affirmed, raised on the bucolic fields of Wolfson's Harbor View Farm in Florida. "Truly on the back of Affirmed, he finally made it back,'' Wolfson said of his father, who died in 2007.
Patrice Wolfson, his widow, who summers in Old Westbury, said the horse's name was tied to her husband's legal problems. "I think at one point I said his innocence will be affirmed,'' she said.
Affirmed was easily the Wolfsons' favorite horse. "He'd love to put his head in my arms, which is very rare for a future stallion,'' Mrs. Wolfson said. "At 3, he was like a little kid.''
After beating Alydar by a length and a half in the Kentucky Derby and a neck in the Preakness, Affirmed's biggest test would come in the Belmont.
Not that the horse seemed the least bit fazed, Mrs. Wolfson said. "The night before the Belmont, [trainer Laz Barrera] called and said Affirmed's sound asleep and photographers are on the roof trying to take pictures of him. I said, 'Get them off the roof and let him sleep.' "
The next day Affirmed ran the race of his life. "Coming down the stretch in the Belmont, it looked like Alydar was going to go right past him,'' Mrs. Wolfson said. "But the way Affirmed dug in, it was chilling. The stands were shaking. I thought it was an earthquake.''
Wolfson's son said his father "knew Affirmed would outgain Alydar. His hands never shook. He had ice water in his veins. I don't think he ever doubted that it was going to happen. There's no way that he ever wanted anybody to beat him in anything. He was just very competitive and he had to be supreme in anything he did.''
Stephen Wolfson, 74, would rather Affirmed remain the last Triple Crown winner. "I just think it lets all of us have a little bit of [a] brush with immortality,'' he said. "I feel that way about sports. DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, the Dolphins going undefeated. I love the fact that those records are not made to be broken. That's the way I feel about it and I've always felt that way.''
Mrs. Wolfson, whose father was Hall of Fame trainer Hirsch Jacobs, is becoming a fan of American Pharoah.
"My feeling right now is that this particular horse has got certain attributes that are worthy and that you could add him to the [Triple Crown] list," she said. "I just hope there's enough competition in there and that he doesn't have a walkover, that these other horses just don't run and he wins all by himself. That would be very disappointing to me. I'd love to see it because it helps racing tremendously.''
The Wolfsons recognized Alydar's greatness. "He gave it his all, unbelievably talented. I'm sure Alydar wanted to try and catch him,'' Mrs. Wolfson said.
Stephen Wolfson said his father wanted to buy Alydar during the 2-year-old season but Calumet refused to sell. "He made the comment he wanted to keep those two colts apart because they're so good,'' he said. But it wasn't, Wolfson said, to enhance Affirmed's racing career. "At that stage of their career, you're not thinking Triple Crown. It was like having two great pitchers who could go 10-0.''
Not being owned by Wolfson may have been the turning point of Alydar's life.
Charges and suspicions
In 2000, 10 years after Alydar's death, Lundy was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison for bank fraud, conspiracy and bribery convictions. The charges stemmed from what prosecutors said were financial dealings aimed at saving Calumet from creditors, one who was owed a reported $20.5 million dating to the time of the Alydar incident.
Prosecutors asked U.S. District Court judge Sim Lake to consider additional jail time for what they said was insurance fraud by Lundy in the death of Alydar. Reports from that time quoted Lake saying there was not a "preponderance'' of evidence tying Lundy to the horse's injury.
FBI agent Rob Foster, who investigated the Alydar incident, said by phone this past week, "I absolutely think something happened. But fraud has a five-year statute and we couldn't charge that because we were way beyond that time. Immediately after [the injury to Alydar], the stall was cleaned up, the floor was replaced, the bracket was gone and nobody's seen it since. All the evidence was gone immediately. But our biggest goal was to be able to get that public so everybody could see what really happened.''
McGee, Lundy's attorney, said, "It's easy to make accusations, easy to throw that dirt out. The insurance company had a lot at stake, because if [Lundy] did it deliberately, they would have saved [$32] million dollars. Alydar was the greatest stud horse that ever lived. If you look at what they were making, he was the moneymaker there. What they're saying is because they had money problems they're destroying the best moneymaker they ever had?''
Alydar's offspring include 1989 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer and Alysheba, winner of the 1987 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and 1988 Breeders' Cup Classic.
Lundy, 74, lives in Georgetown, Kentucky, but attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Lloyd's payout to Calumet for the loss of Alydar was the company's biggest for an equine claim, adjuster Dixon said. He determined Alydar's injury was accidental. "I never had any doubts from Day 1,'' Dixon said. "The money ain't on the track, it's in the breeding shed. The horse was a cash register. I just gave the facts to the underwriters and they paid it without question and it's been 25 years and I haven't had a question from them since. The people who had to pay the claim have never questioned what I told them.''
Affirmed died in 2001 and, adorned in his flamingo pink and black silks, lies beneath a huge monument befitting a Triple Crown winner in Lexington's Jonabelle Farm Equine Cemetery. He died a horse's death, laminitis, which also claimed Secretariat.
Mrs. Wolfson thought back to his last race in the Jockey Club Gold Cup as a 4-year-old. "I was hugging him, he turned away . . . I said, 'We're going to miss you, big boy.' "
Alydar lies at Calumet, long since restored by new ownership to its majestic standing as an elite horse farm. Alydar's monument is smaller than Affirmed's, second there, too, as he was in life to the Triple Crown winner.
Dixon was present when Alydar was euthanized. Tears were flowing. "Have you ever had to pull the plug on a member of your family?'' Dixon said. "We did the Christian thing, we did the right thing.''
Dixon said Lundy left before Alydar closed his eyes for the final time.
Said Dixon, "He couldn't take it.''