VERONA, Ky. (AP) — Steve Cauthen knew it was a special achievement to win the Triple Crown with Affirmed in 1978. After a 36-year drought, he’s ready to see someone do it again.
California Chrome and rider Victor Espinoza aim to become the 12th Triple Crown winners in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. The prospect has Cauthen fondly recalling his duel with rival Alydar in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes as an 18-year-old. Alydar finished second in each race.
“I appreciate Affirmed more and more as the years have gone by,” he said this week during an appearance at his farm with NASCAR driver Carl Edwards. “I knew how tough it was to win the Triple Crown, even though it had been done in (1973, with Secretariat) and ’77 (Seattle Slew), and almost was done with Spectacular Bid in ’79.”
Cauthen believes the perfect combination of a “great” horse and motivation to get the best out of himself and his mount culminated in an achievement that hasn’t been matched in a generation.
“They were all great races, it was a great rivalry, they were so close that neither one of us could afford to make any mistakes,” said Cauthen, who rode Affirmed to victory by a nose over Alydar in the Belmont.
Happy to be racing in the Triple Crown at that age, Cauthen remembers feeling pressure only during the three-week run-up to the Belmont. His nerves disappeared once upon Affirmed in the Triple Crown’s longest race, enough for him to change his whip strategy during a neck-and-neck showdown.
Accustomed to using his whip in his right hand, Cauthen switched to his left hand in the stretch. He got just enough from the horse to edge Alydar in the third-fastest Belmont and provide the third Triple Crown champion of the 1970s.
“I realized I needed to do something else if we were going to get the job done,” Cauthen said of switching hands. “In the back of my mind I wondered how he’d react, and at that stage of that stage, now’s the time to give it a try.”
That remarkable run of champions led Cauthen to believe another would soon follow him. There have been 11 tries, but none succeeded.
Cauthen’s ready to welcome another member to the exclusive club and will be present to watch California Chrome and Espinoza chase history.
“It’s time for another Triple Crown winner,” he said. “We’ll be more than happy to invite Victor into the fold. California Chrome seems like a special horse.”
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