NEW YORK, N.Y., Nov. 18, 2001 — I thought about June 10, 1978 upon reading a little sidebar box toward the back of the Times Sports pages, a filler really. One of the combatants that made that day so special, and one I’ll never forget, had passed away back in January. I called my brother then and commiserated, remembering the colossal contest we had witnessed 23 years ago. June 10 of a Yankee championship season seems a promising date for a Yankee fan to want to commemorate, but this column is not about baseball.
My brother and I had managed to spend much of the 70′s, separately, “in between” things. I was between jobs more often than not, as was he, and although to our credit we managed to never burden Mom and Dad with our collective presence, we both spent time there individually for months at a time and ended the decade with 80 King Street, Edison, still listed as our permanent address(es). Dabbling in all sports, and wagering on a few, we were penny ante football losers (pro and college), and longed for the occasional tip on a horse. (I have never needed to add to the pot by wagering on Yankee Baseball, BTW.)
And John and I had latched onto a Champion (we were) sure (was) to bring us rewards uncountable. But this was part three of the plan and we were still waiting for a win. We had already failed to score by a half-length, and then a neck, respectively, by betting on Alydar to win the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness. But June 10 was Belmont Day, the day we were sure to recoup our losses, and perhaps with a little spending money on the side.
It was with that in mind that we met at the local bar that gorgeous Saturday afternoon. We didn’t really have the cash to make a whole day of it at Belmont, and this was in the days before you could catch, and bet on, a simulcast at a local track like Monmouth. The phone work with a local “businessman” had been made (“turf accountant” is the charming term they use in Ireland), the arrangements were made. Still boldly predicting victory, I uncharacteristically prevailed on a mountain of a man who had been at the bar far too long, loudly — and repeatedly — proclaiming how “she done me wrong” over an army of emptied bar glasses.
“Hey buddy, I’m sorry for interrupting ya, really I am, but if you’ll just give us two minutes of silence you’ll see the best race you ever saw in your life, and if I’m wrong, well, you can do to me what you want then, OK?”
Well, my boldness paid off and my crystal ball was deadly accurate. It brings a tear even today. Two marvelous — and equally matched — thoroughbreds battling it out, neck and neck for the full final half-mile of the race. Affirmed and Alydar. Alydar and Affirmed. I had never seen anything in my life to match it, and I haven’t since. It’s the reason I still get goose bumps every time I hear “…and down the stretch they come!”
John and I were to prove our pedigree at losing close bets that day as surely as those two horses proved that they were the finest creatures alive. Affirmed won the Triple Crown, besting the game Alydar, this time by only a head. The big man ended up thanking me for the glorious diversion from his troubles, and Hank the bartender poured me and John a beer.
I was younger. I had already lived through the slow painful demise of my hero the Mick, and of the proud Yankee franchise, only to see it rise again. But those two horses taught me a lot that day, and the frustrating and seemingly endless eighties could do nothing to dim my fan-ness. I had been taught how to root, and taught by a champion.
Both three-year-olds in 1978, Alydar died in 1990. Affirmed was put down due to an infection on January 12, 2001, at the grand old age (for a horse) of 26.
Long live the Champions!