Books of Note: Duel for the Crown

In 1978, as Affirmed and Alydar sizzled down the stretch of the Belmont Stakes, I was a one-year-old toddler oblivious to the drama playing out between these two colts. It would be a decade before I would learn of their legendary battles amid the backdrop of racing’s most elite pursuit, the Triple Crown. To this day, I imagine that, like any rivalry, I would find fans who would be firmly on one side or the other. Affirmed or Alydar? The golden chestnut of Harbor View Farm & his owners Lou & Patricia Wolfson or the reddish-gold son of Raise a Native, the last great hope of the Markeys and the legendary Calumet Farm?

You could read any number of books on the Triple Crown, each profiling the twelve (now thirteen) names on that elite list, and you will get the basic overview of each winner’s career. To truly understand the immortal and his moment, a deeper exploration of the who and what and where and when are necessary and, for Affirmed and Alydar, that is precisely what Duel for the Crown by Linda Carroll and David Rosner provides. Carroll and Rosner skillfully weave together the history behind the venerable Calumet Farm; a self-made millionaire named Louis Wolfson; his second wife, Patrice, the daughter of a Hall-of-Fame trainer; and two colts whose pedigrees include the same influential sire.

81+f8bHuGMLThe authors start with a pitched stretch battle between Affirmed and Alydar, but not in the race you think: rather than that storied Belmont Stakes, the two duel in the 1977 Hopeful Stakes, battling eye-to-eye to the wire. Ultimately, the victory belongs to Affirmed, but truly this race signals that something special is going on, its roots deep in racing royalty both equine and human. From the 1977 Hopeful, the book introduces us to Raise a Native, his son Exclusive Native, and the breeding shed at Spendthrift Farm, where these two sires covered mares belonging to first Calumet Farm (Raise a Native-Sweet Tooth) and then Harbor View Farm (Exclusive Native-Won’t Tell You). Carroll and Rosner fan outward from the 1975 breeding season through the history of Calumet and the Wright family and Harbor View Farm and the controversial figure behind it, Louis Wolfson. Through their prose, you sail through the story of how Affirmed and Alydar became the rivals who are better known in relation to each other than as individuals. You meet riding wunderkind Steve Cauthen, his mentor and friend (and Alydar’s jockey) Jorge Velásquez, and the two trainers, Laz Barrera and John Veitch, that laid out the paths these rivals would take through their legendary 1977 and 1978 seasons. Each has stories that are compelling on their own, but, when woven together through these two colts and their careers, the drama is heightened even more.

Writing about the Triple Crown has become a passion of mine and reading about it was one long before I put pen to paper to write about Sir Barton. As a reader, Duel for the Crown is one of those books where I found myself so entranced that I was surprised that I did not read the whole thing in one sitting. As a writer, I aspire to the masterful storytelling that Carroll and Rosner employ in covering this epic rivalry; additionally, I drew on John Veitch’s description of Alydar in writing about Sir Barton in my upcoming book on America’s first Triple Crown winner.

Now, as the chill of winter descends on us, may I recommend that you cozy up with your favorite blanket, a cup of your preferred hot beverage, and Duel for the Crown? If you’re a fan of great horses and great books about them, this is a worthy addition to your bookshelf. If you love someone who loves great horses and great books about them, Duel for the Crown would make an AMAZING gift this holiday season.

Let’s relive that epic battle between Affirmed and Alydar one more time, shall we?

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