Three weeks ago, I featured Duel for the Crown by Linda Carroll and Dave Rosner as the blog’s Book of Note for December. Their thrilling profile of the rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar recounted both their epic battles on the track and the people and moments that brought those two great horses to that thrilling Belmont finish in 1978, where Affirmed bested Alydar by a scant nose to win the Triple Crown. This month’s Author Answers features Linda Carroll, award-winning author of Duel for the Crown and Out of the Clouds and reporter for many prestigious publications, including Reuters, the New York Times, and NBC News.
The rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar is one of the greatest in horse racing. What was it about their battles that made you want to write about them?
I think Affirmed and Alydar were so compelling because either one could have been a Triple Crown winner had they not been born in the same year. Even more than that, their rivalry became one of the greatest not only in horse racing but in all of sports, transcending the racetrack. Their contrasting personalities and racing styles not only fueled the rivalry, but also infused the storytelling. And it didn’t hurt that their human connections were as compelling and colorful as the two chestnuts themselves, with the two “teams of rivals” featuring dueling owners, trainers, and jockeys who also afforded a stark study in contrasts.
With so much visual and print media about both horses available, what did you find to be the biggest challenge in writing Duel for the Crown?
Our biggest challenge, by far, was writing the climactic chapter on the epic Belmont duel. Not only was this the greatest single race ever run, but it was one that those of us old enough to have seen in person or on TV remember in vivid detail and that everyone else has seen replayed over and over through the magic of video. During all those sleepless nights preparing to tackle the chapter describing that showdown, we spent a lot of time rereading Bill Nack’s gripping account of that “other” unforgettable Belmont in Secretariat. His breathtaking description of Secretariat’s rousing Belmont romp gave us more than inspiration: we also saw the brilliance of his conceit in switching to present tense to heighten immediacy and drama. We used it to achieve the same purpose in replaying Affirmed and Alydar’s electrifying Belmont.
What could the sport do to bring in more fans? What could current racing fans do to make others fans as well?
Consider the fact that Affirmed and Alydar faced each other more times (ten showdowns in careers that spanned three years and more than two dozen races apiece) than Justify went to the post throughout his entire career (six lifetime starts spanning just 111 days). Whatever spark Justify’s and American Pharoah’s Triple Crown sweeps lit to reignite racing’s faded popularity these past four years was extinguished too soon when each was retired to the more lucrative breeding shed at the tender age of 3. Contrast those shooting stars with Affirmed, who followed his Triple Crown season by successfully defending his Horse of the Year title as a 4-year-old. In the 40 years since Affirmed’s Triple Crown capped racing’s last golden age, the average number of starts per Thoroughbred runner has plummeted by a whopping 65 percent from 34 career starts to just 12 today, while the average starts per year has dropped 40 percent from 10 to just 6 today. How can a fan bond with a horse hero when the very best disappear from the scene so quickly? This trend has to stop if racing hopes to build the kind of enduring stars any sport needs to build a following and a growing fan base.
As to your question about how to convert the uninitiated into becoming racing fans, I would just show them this video that still gives me chills every time I watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2sjDivffYE.
You breed Arabians and Oldenburgs. How did you get into working with those breeds?
Well, the first horse I ever bought, a horse trader special, was an unregistered Arab, or part Arab. While she did have her quirks, she was sensitive and smart and on top of that an amazing athlete. I figured out early on that if I could stay with her, I’d never be in trouble because that mare never took a bad step. When I saw the movie The Man from Snowy River, I thought, ‘My mare could do that.’ We rode a lot of trails together, but at some point I realized I wanted to do some shows and so I started looking for a registered Arabian. Which is how I got into breeding: because I couldn’t afford the horse I really wanted, I purchased the best mare I could and bred her to what turned out to be the perfect stallion for her.
I started out riding Western, but eventually got into hunter/jumpers. I had a neat little purebred mare who could jump the moon and we had a great time. But eventually I needed a new prospect and, being a bit older by then and a little less bold, I decided I wanted a big horse that could make the jumps look smaller. So I bred to a warmbood and got a 16.2h boy with the brains of my Arab mare and the size of his sire. At that point, Arab-Warmblood crosses were starting to be the rage, so I just kept breeding. Now I have five Oldenburg-registered half Arabians and 11 purebreds, the most recent a lovely chestnut colt.
I also have one Thoroughbred mare, a Tiznow daughter, that I got to breed to my Arabian stallion. But she turned out to be a bit tall for live cover, so for the present, I’ve leased her out to a racehorse breeder and she’s made one lovely colt by Race Day and is back in foal for another.
I have to know: which horse is your favorite, Affirmed or Alydar?
Affirmed. Because he was so intelligent; because he had such an indomitable will to win; and, most of all, because he was the underdog who had to prove his mettle time and again against the most formidable foe any Triple Crown winner has ever had to overcome. In fact, that admiration for the underdog is what drove our choice for our follow-up racing book: Out of the Clouds tells the intertwined tale of racing’s greatest rags-to-riches Cinderella stories–how the bargain-hunting outsider Hirsch Jacobs transformed an unwanted plodder named Stymie from a cheap $1,500 claimer into the richest racehorse the world had ever seen. And considering that Affirmed was co-owned by Hirsch Jacobs’s daughter, Patrice, I guess you could call Out of the Clouds something of a prequel to Duel for the Crown. How can a fan bond with a horse hero when they disappear from the scene so quickly? This trend has to stop if racing hopes to build the kind of enduring stars any sport would need to build a following and a growing fan base.
Thank you, Ms. Carroll, for being a part of the Sir Barton Project! If you would like to learn more about Linda Carroll, you can visit her Fiery Run Farm or the Duel for the Crown website. If you would like to buy Duel for the Crown, you can find it at most major retailers.