by Doug McCoy
It’s been 36 years since Affirmed narrowly outdueled Alydar down the stretch at Belmont Park to capture the Triple Crown. In the days leading up to California Chrome’s attempt to make history in this year’s Belmont Stakes there have been numerous replays of the heartstopping stretch duel in 1978, and it’s easy to see young Steve Cauthen’s left hand whip at work as Affirmed and Alydar thunder toward the finish.
What most folks don’t know is why Cauthen came to have his whip in his left hand as he and Jorge Velasquez, Jr. raced shoulder to shoulder down the Belmont stretch.
Some months earlier at Churchill Downs the young apprentice Cauthen was involved in a long stretch duel with wily veteran jockey Don Brumfield. Brumfield, who was as cagey as they came, was on the outside with Cauthen on the inside. As the pair battled Brumfield saw Cauthen had his whip in his right hand. The veteran leaned in ever so slightly so the two riders were racing shoulder to shoulder and kept that position to the finish, thus pinning Cauthen and preventing him from getting his arm free to either switch sticks or apply pressure to his mount.
Brumfield’s horse won in a photo, and Cauthen claimed foul. But Keene Dangerfield, one of the best stewards the business has ever had, told the young jockey, “Sorry Mr. Cauthen, that was not an infraction of the rules. That was just good old-fashioned race riding.”
Two weeks later the two jockeys hooked up again in a stretch duel, and this time Cauthen was on the outside while Brumfield was along the rail. As they came down the stretch Cauthen edged oh-so-close to Brumfield’s mount and positioned his inside shoulder just inches from Brumfield’s, thus “arm locking” the older rider and preventing him from using his right hand whip. Cauthen’s horse won by a narrow margin and sure enough, Brumfield claimed foul.
Dangerfield told the veteran his claim of foul was dismissed. “I’m afraid, Mr. Brumfield, that you have taught your pupil too well,” the steward quipped.
So while millions saw Cauthen using his whip left handed in the stretch back in 1978, what many didn’t see was the young rider moving his whip to that left hand in the second turn, thus insuring that he wouldn’t be arm locked and would have the freedom to use his whip during what would turn out to be the most important stretch drive of his career.
As Keene Dangerfield said, the pupil had learned his lesson well!