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When Triple Crown Winners Clashed

by Jon White

October 18, 2018

Triple Crown winners have met only twice in the history of Thoroughbred racing in America. It happened on two occasions 40 years ago.

Affirmed swept the Triple Crown in 1978, a year after Seattle Slew had accomplished the feat. They faced each other for the first time in the 1 1/8-mile Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park in 1978. Affirmed was bet down to 1-2 favoritism in the field of six. Seattle Slew was 2-1, the only time in his 17-race career that he was not the favorite.

Steve Cauthen rode 3-year-old Affirmed for trainer Laz Barrera. Angel Cordero Jr. piloted 4-year-old Seattle Slew for trainer Doug Peterson. It was the first time Cordero had ridden Seattle Slew, replacing Jean Cruguet, who had been aboard the Bold Reasoning colt in his first 13 races.

Seattle Slew opened a clear advantage on Affirmed soon after the start.

“The Marlboro was as good as over after a quarter of a mile,” Joe Hirsch wrote in the American Racing Manual. “Seattle Slew, carrying 128 pounds to Affirmed’s 124 (the 3-year-old was giving a pound on the scale of weights to the 4-year-old) took command at the outset and opened a margin of two lengths on Affirmed, with Angel Cordero Jr. (who had replaced Jean Cruguet) rating Seattle Slew on the front end.

“The first quarter was accomplished in :24, the half-mile in :47, with Affirmed still a couple of lengths behind Seattle Slew. Some thought Affirmed’s cause was lost as a result of the slow early pace, among them Laz Barrera, trainer of Affirmed. He said in post-race comments that he had instructed Cauthen to remain no more than a length off the leader. Others questioned whether Affirmed could match Seattle Slew for speed out of the gate, no matter what the rider did.

“In any event, Seattle Slew led all the way to win by three lengths over Affirmed, with Nasty and Bold another five lengths back. Upper Nile, Cox’s Ridge and Darby Creek Road, the others in the Marlboro and all stakes winners, were outclassed in this company.”

Affirmed skipped the 1 1/4-mile Woodward Stakes at Belmont on Sept. 30. Seattle Slew won that race by four emphatic lengths.

And then, 40 years ago this week, Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed had a rematch in the 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold at Belmont on Oct. 14.

Barrera did not want to see Seattle Slew get an easy early lead again. Thus, the trainer also ran the speedy Life’s Hope in Gold Cup as a “rabbit” to push Seattle Slew in the early going.

This time Seattle Slew was the odds-on favorite at 3-5. Affirmed and Life’s Hope, coupled in the wagering, went off at 2-1. Exceller, trained by Charlie Whittingham, was sent off at 7-2 after having finished second to Seattle Slew in the Woodward.

Cordero again rode Seattle Slew. Cauthen was back aboard Affirmed. Bill Shoemaker had the riding assignment on Exceller. The track was sloppy.

All certainly did not go well early for either Seattle Slew or Affirmed in the Gold Cup.

To begin with, Seattle Slew broke through the gate before the start. The percentage of horses who win after doing that is very low.

When the field of six was dispatched by the starter, Seattle Slew did get away to an alert beginning. But then he found himself embroiled in a three-way battle for the early lead with Affirmed and Life’s Hope.

“They move into the turn a three-horse team,” race announcer Chic Anderson said during his call.

It was Seattle Slew on the inside, Life’s Hope on the outside, with Affirmed in between.

According to Cordero, Seattle Slew and Affirmed “made a little contact going into the first turn.” According to Cordero, when that happened, his foot came out of the left stirrup and he bounced down into the saddle.

“When I touched the saddle with my behind,” Cordero recalled years later, “my horse just took off.”

Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Life’s Hope sped the opening quarter in :22 3/5. And the quick pace did not stop there.

The trio stepped the opening half in a sizzling :45 1/5, prompting Anderson to say, “Those three are really blazing.”

Life’s Hope could only stay with Seattle Slew and Affirmed through the first half-mile. Life’s Hope eventually stopped to a walk and wound up far behind his five opponents.

Affirmed continued vying for the lead for about six furlongs before retreating. His saddle had slipped earlier in the race on the clubhouse turn when Cauthen thought it would be prudent to try and rate him off the hot pace. According to Hirsch, when Affirmed’s saddle slipped, Cauthen “lost full control of his horse.”

Affirmed finished fifth and lost by almost 19 lengths. During his illustrious racing career, the Exclusive Native colt finished first or second in 27 of 29 starts and third once. The lone time Affirmed ever finished worse than third was when the saddle slipped in his 1978 rematch against Seattle Slew.

Seattle Slew ran the first six furlongs in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1:09 2/5, a pace that Cordero termed “brutal.” Slew sported a 2 1/2-length lead at that point.

After Seattle Slew had gone a little farther than midway around the far turn, he had opened a healthy lead as Affirmed was dropping back. Cordero took a peek back.

“I turned around and looked and saw that I was four or five lengths in front,” Cordero said. “And I saw Exceller was flying on the inside with Shoemaker.”

After being 22 lengths behind early, Exceller closed with a rush along the inside rail to engage Seattle Slew for the lead turning for home.

Coming into the stretch, Exceller and Seattle Slew were locked in a furious head-and-head brawl. Exceller found himself in rather close quarters between Affirmed and the inner rail. Cordero has admitted that at that stage of the race, he “started race-riding” Exceller.

“I tried to keep him close to the fence,” said Cordero, who explained that he did so mainly because the inside part of the track was believed to be a little deeper.

When Exceller increased his lead to a half-length lead with a furlong to go, it appeared that perhaps he was on his way to victory. But Seattle Slew refused to surrender.

As the equine slugfest between Seattle Slew and Exceller continued approaching the sixteenth pole, Anderson said the following into his microphone: “This is a real battle on to the wire.”

In the book “Whiittingham,” Jay Hovdey wrote: “Exceller edged away and Seattle Slew fought back until he was almost on even terms as they approached the wire. But in the end it was Exceller, his head low and covered with mud, who held on to win by a nose.”

It had been billed as a rematch between Triple Crown winners. But as it turned out, neither Seattle Slew nor Affirmed was victorious in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. However, Slew was saluted by many for coming so close to winning a 1 1/2-mile race after going as fast as he did early.

In the book “Seattle Slew,” Dan Mearns wrote: “Slew’s courage and determination earned the praise of fans and racing industry professionals alike. Some even would say that Slew ran his greatest race in defeat.”

Indeed, the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup seems to be remembered more for Seattle Slew being so gallant in defeat than for Exceller’s victory. Not surprisingly, that did not sit well with one Charles Edward Whittingham.

One morning at Santa Anita in the 1980s, I was standing with Whittingham and a couple of other people when the subject of the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup came up.

“All I ever hear people say is how great Seattle Slew ran,” Whittingham said. “But Exceller won that race. They seem to forget that.”

It was a point well taken.


Chasing Yesterday, a half-sister to Triple Crown winner American Pharaoah, won the seven-furlong Anoakia Stakes at Santa Anita last Sunday. Hall of Famer Bob Baffert trains the 2-year-old Kentucky-bred Tapit filly.

When American Pharoah swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 2015, he became the first horse to achieve the feat in 37 years. Baffert trained American Pharoah.

Earlier this year, Baffert won the Triple Crown again, this time with Justify.

There were those, including yours truly, who believed a filly who won the 1982 Anoakia Stakes possessed the talent to go on and possibly win the1983 Kentucky Derby and maybe even the Triple Crown. That filly was Landaluce.

When Justify burst on the racing scene at Santa Anita last Feb. 18, he reminded me of Landaluce’s Anoakia victory. The two performances are eerily similar. You can watch both races on YouTube and judge for yourself.

Landaluce drew off in the stretch, won the seven-furlong Anoakia by 10 lengths and posted a final time of 1:21 4/5.

Justify drew off in the stretch, won a seven-furlong maiden special weight race by 9 1/2 lengths and posted a final time of 1:21 4/5.

For those who might question whether Landaluce had what it took to win the Kentucky Derby or possibly the Triple Crown, keep in mind that to this day, her Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, says she is the best Thoroughbred he has ever trained. (Lukas has said he considers Quarter Horse superstar Dash For Cash to have been the best racehorse he has ever trained.)

This means that Lukas believes Landaluce was better than all three horses to be voted Horse of the Year when he trained them: Lady’s Secret (1986), Criminal Type (1990) and Charismatic (1999).

Lukas also is of the opinion that Landaluce was better than such champions as Winning Colors (one of only three fillies to have ever won the Kentucky Derby) and Serena’s Song.

Landaluce won the Anoakia as a 1-10 favorite on Oct. 11. When she made her next start in the 1 1/16-mile Oak Leaf Stakes (now the Chandelier Stakes) on Oct. 23, Jeff Tufts installed her as a 1-9 morning-line favorite. Landaluce became the first horse in the history of Santa Anita to be listed at 1-9 in the program.

Bet down to 1-20 favoritism, Landaluce did win the Oak Leaf, but by “only” two lengths. It would be the smallest margin of victory in her five-race career, though her final time 1:41 4/5 was only three-fifths of a second off the stakes record.

After the Oak Leaf, Landaluce was scheduled to make her next start in the $518,850 Hollywood Starlet Stakes at Hollywood Park. At that time, the Starlet was the richest race for female Thoroughbreds in history. But Landaluce did not run in the Starlet. She was not even entered in the race because she had become seriously ill.

Sadly and shockingly, at approximately 5:30 a.m. the day of the Starlet, Landaluce died from a severe bacterial infection.

Dr. Bennie Osburn, associate dean of research at the University of California at Davis, later reported that Landaluce had died from Escherichia coli, more commonly known as E. coli.

At the time of Landaluce’s death, she already had become a national superstar. From the first crop of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, Landaluce made jaws drop in her second career start when she won the Hollywood Lassie Stakes in sensational fashion.

The Lassie was a six-furlong race. After leading by just 1 1/2 lengths at the quarter pole, Landaluce ran up the score in the stretch to win by an astounding 21 lengths with Laffit Pincay Jr. in the saddle. It remains one of the greatest performances ever seen at a California track.

“Laffit chirped to her at the quarter pole,” Lukas once recalled, “and that’s when 21 lengths happened. She opened up 21 lengths, as a 2-year-old filly, from the quarter pole to the wire in record time. When Laffit’s pulling up on the backside, I’m awestruck. I had never seen that kind of acceleration, a horse run like that.”

Her final time of 1:08 flat shattered the stakes record set by Terlingua in 1978 by four-fifths of a second. Lukas had also trained Terlingua, who would become the dam of super sire Storm Cat.

One can only wonder what the supremely talented Landaluce might have been able to accomplish if she had not died at such a tender age.


Three contenders for the Grade I, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Nov. 3 recorded workouts Sunday morning at Santa Anita. XBTV.com has video of these drills by Accelerate, West Coast and McKinzie.

Accelerate, trained by John Sadler, worked four furlongs in :47.80. Private clocker Toby Turrell gave the workout a big thumbs up.

“I think he was much stronger out of his last race than even going in,” Turrell said later in the morning to Mike Willman on his radio program Thoroughbred Los Angeles. “That is promising. There was just a little bit more ease to his stride. He was even more fluid down the lane. Maybe he liked that little remnant of the moisture left in the track [from a rainstorm]. Whatever it was, he sure looked strong today.”

Accelerate’s most recent race was Santa Anita’s Awesome Again Stakes, which he won by 2 1/2 lengths on Sept. 29, his fourth Grade I victory this year. The 5-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Lookin At Lucky also won the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap in March, Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita in May and Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August.

West Coast, runner-up in the Awesome Again, worked four furlongs Sunday for Baffert in :59.40. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred Flatter colt figures to move forward off the Awesome Again in that it was his first start since finishing second to Gun Runner in the Group I, $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31.

McKinzie worked six furlongs Sunday in a bullet 1:12.00 for Baffert. It was his first workout since he won the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby at Parx on Sept. 22 in his first start since March 10.

“McKinzie lost weight exiting his comeback win the Pennsylvania Derby, but he’s put it back on and then some,” Privman wrote this week for Daily Racing Form. “His trainer, Bob Baffert, reports that McKinzie weighed 1,170 pounds prior to going to Parx Racing, was at 1,138 coming out of the race, but was back to 1,178 after his workout Sunday at Santa Anita.”

Meanwhile, in New York, another BC Classic contender, Catholic Boy, worked five furlongs on the Belmont Park main track Sunday morning in 1:01.26 for trainer Jonathan Thomas. XBTV also has video of that workout.

Catholic Boy had missed a scheduled workout the previous weekend. This was the first workout for the Kentucky-bred More Than Ready colt since he won Saratoga’s Grade I Travers Stakes on Aug. 25.


Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 346 Accelerate (9)
2. 222 Justify (27)
3. 211 Mind Your Biscuits
4. 207 Monomoy Girl
5. 157 Imperial Hint (1)
6. 146 Catholic Boy
7. 142 Yoshida
8. 119 West Coast (1)
9. 94 Catalina Cruiser
10. 74 Sistercharlie