Triple Crown head-to-head: Affirmed vs War Admiral

Apr 28, 2020 Kellie Reilly/

In anticipation of the virtual Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown, we’re analyzing several intriguing head-to-head match-ups. This installment of the series pits Affirmed against War Admiral.

Why Affirmed vs War Admiral

Although a half-century apart, War Admiral (1937) and Affirmed (1978) had similar qualities beyond their high-class consistency. Both possessed bright speed, displayed exceptional courage to complete a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont (G1), and carried as much as 132 pounds to victory as older horses. Adding a further dimension to the comparison, War Admiral is an ancestor of Affirmed.

The case for Affirmed

Voted champion in all three seasons of racing, Affirmed was twice honored as Horse of the Year. War Admiral was not as accomplished at two and lost a potential championship at four.

Affirmed’s primary claim, however, is that he faced better horses. Archrival Alydar, a Hall of Famer in his own right, would have been a dominant Triple Crown winner if not for Affirmed. It took an epically brave performance from Affirmed to fend off Alydar in a photo-finish Belmont.

Affirmed finished first in 10 straight until running into older Triple Crown star Seattle Slew in the Marlboro Cup (G1), where he placed a game second. Their rematch in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) is a what-might-have-been, since Affirmed’s saddle slipped, causing the only unplaced effort of his 29-race career.

As a 4-year-old, Affirmed went on a seven-race winning spree. In addition to setting a 1 1/4-mile track record at Santa Anita in 1:58 3/5, he sped in 1:58 2/5 at Hollywood Park while giving 12 pounds to Italian Horse of the Year Sirlad. The 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup was his grand finale, as he defeated younger Hall of Famer Spectacular Bid.

War Admiral’s opposition did not measure up to that lofty standard. And when he did meet another Hall of Famer, Seabiscuit, he was hurled back in their match race at Pimlico.

War Admiral’s rebuttal

A single loss shouldn’t define an entire career, especially since it came in the unique conditions of a match race, and not a typical race dynamic. Match races tend to favor the horse who grabs the early lead. Once Seabiscuit surprisingly beat War Admiral to the punch, the Triple Crown winner was up against it.

As a counterfactual, it’s worth remembering that the match was supposed to have taken place at Belmont Park earlier in the season, but Seabiscuit scratched. Had they squared off then, rather than at Pimlico where War Admiral cut it close in the Preakness, it’s at least possible that the result might have been different. In any event, the point remains that even the greats are beatable in certain circumstances.

War Admiral was otherwise a win machine, and only once finished out of the top three in 26 career starts. He ran up an 11-race skein, including all eight outings during his Triple Crown year in 1937, and achieved something that Affirmed didn’t – beating his elders at three. Only Seabiscuit stopped the streaking War Admiral from finishing his career with eight in a row.

When it comes to raw courage, War Admiral takes a back seat to no one. He had every right to lose the Triple Crown after grabbing himself badly at the break in the Belmont. But War Admiral took no notice of the blood spurting from his foot onto his stomach, leading throughout in a then-record time for 1 1/2 miles.

The verdict

Affirmed deserves to get the nod because he competed in stronger company, and more often than not, he seized those opportunities to establish his place in the pantheon. War Admiral was not as blessed in that department, making him the underdog in a clash with the proven Affirmed.

Jockey Club Gold Cup photo of Affirmed courtesy of the Keeneland Library Thoroughbred Times collection. Portrait of War Admiral courtesy of the Keeneland Library Cook Collection. These images are protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in print or electronically without written permission of the Keeneland Library.

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