Heading into the final turn, with history waiting at the wire if he and Affirmed could win the Belmont Stakes and become Triple Crown champions, jockey Steve Cauthen feared that his horse was tiring.
"I was starting to sense that we might be in trouble," he recalled 30 years later as if that 1978 race were unfolding all over again today.
Jorge Velasquez had Alydar, who had dueled Affirmed in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, rolling on the outside and looking to take the lead.
"I believe I pulled a head in front of Affirmed," Velasquez said. "I thought I was a winner."
What followed assured greatness for both:
One for joining racing's most exclusive club, one for pushing his rival and himself to the limits a la Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.
Affirmed, the speed horse, and Alydar, the stalker with a powerful finishing kick, had gone head-to-head six times as 2-year-olds. (Consider for a moment that Big Brown had just three races before the 2008 Kentucky Derby.)
Affirmed won four of those races, Alydar won the other two.
Their paths split but converged again on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Affirmed held off Alydar, the slight betting favorite, by 1½ lengths. Two weeks later at Pimlico in Baltimore, Alydar came charging at Affirmed again, losing that time by a neck.
The next three weeks were trying for Cauthen, then just 18 and hailed as the wonder kid of racing. He was on the cover of Time on May 29, 1978, a couple weeks before the Belmont, chomping on a cigar with the headline "A Born Winner."
"I was getting a little nervous," he said. "I didn't want to make a mistake and be the reason that we didn't win the Triple Crown. I really respected Alydar. He was always putting the pressure on and he never gave up; he kept coming back."
And coming at his rival.
The 1½ mile Belmont seemingly would suit Alydar more than Affirmed, but trainer John Veitch didn't want to merely trust that added distance alone would be the difference for his charge. He decided to take blinkers off Alydar for the first time all year.
"Patrice," he said to Affirmed owner Patrice Wolfson during a recent teleconference, "I was trying to figure out a way to beat you. And I wanted him to relax and to be very aggressive in the Belmont."
The change seemingly worked. With Affirmed setting a pedestrian pace to conserve his strength, Alydar moved alongside his rival on the outside about seven-eighths of a mile into the race. The two began to accelerate, leaving the other three horses in the field behind and turning the Belmont essentially into a match race.
As they straightened out in the stretch, Alydar poked his head in front and that's when the game within the game began.
"I was trying to ride Steve a little close making sure that I don't get my number taken down or something like that," Velasquez said. "I just don't want him to be able to hit his horse right-handed."
"I was never that good with my left," Cauthen said.
He hadn't ever used his left hand on Affirmed. Oh, he had thought about it. That's the only way to find out how a horse responds to being hit on a different side.
"It had never gotten to the point where I felt like I needed to," he said.
Until that moment.
"It was like, 'Okay. It's now or never,' '' Cauthen said as he switched the stick to his left and hit Affirmed a couple of times.
"I said (to myself), 'Well, I got him this time,' '' Velasquez said. "(Then) I see the little head coming again and I said, 'Oh, my god, here we go again.' ''
Affirmed dug in, inched by Alydar and held him off by a head to become the 11th Triple Crown champion.
"I had to ask him for everything that day," Cauthen said. "His desire, his heart, is what got him home that day."
"(In) my opinion, I rode a winning race," Velasquez said three decades later. "It was great for racing for Stevie to win the Triple Crown, but I was hurt, Stevie; (it) hurt me badly."
Between 1979-2008, 11 others won the first two jewels of the Crown, further immortalizing what Affirmed did and how he pulled it off.
Said Wolfson: "It was something the racing world will never forget."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.