It was a bright summer day on August 19, 1978, and I had just turned 16. My father had taken me and my two younger brothers from Pittsfield in our old station wagon to the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
1978 was the last year of a Triple Crown winner, the immortal Affirmed. He was engaged in the most famous horse rivalry of all time, his ten meetings with another super horse, Alydar. For the first and only time in history, while one horse was winning the Triple Crown that spring, one horse was persistently second, and that horse was the great Alydar. (In fact, it was the only time a horse came in second in all three Triple Crown races, regardless of winner.) Affirmed had beat Alydar by only a neck in the Preakness, and by only a hair of a nose in the Belmont.
It did not always end with Affirmed on top, having lost to Alydar twice. But of their nine pre-Travers meetings, Affirmed came out on top seven times, including the Triple Crown which constituted their seventh, eighth, and ninth meetings. But even though Affirmed came in first more often, he only seemed to win by the smallest of margins with Alydar close behind.
The Travers Stakes would be the 10th and final meeting of the greatest horse rivalry of all time. There were only four horses in the Travers that year, Affirmed and Alydar having scared off the rest. In fact, there had only been five in the Belmont that year because of the equine duo, which is usually loaded with contenders.
I came up with an “ingenious” plan — to bet a large amount of money on Affirmed to “place,” meaning that I would win if Affirmed came in either first or second. Affirmed was no sure thing — while he won Saratoga’s Jim Dandy stakes, he struggled with horses that he convincingly beat earlier in the year. Alydar, on the other hand, was training well and destroyed the field with a smashing 7-length victory at Saratoga’s prestigious Whitney Handicap.
Alydar might beat Affirmed I thought to myself, but the odds of Affirmed coming in first or second were the odds of the sun rising the next day: it was an absolute sure thing.
So it was my design to lay down $20 ($66 by today’s standards), which was weeks and weeks of allowances. If Affirmed came in first or second, I was only going to get 10 cents on every dollar bet. Dad strongly advised against it, shaking his head, telling me that the horse would not pay enough and that anything could happen in a horse race. But he did not stop me and placed my bet for me. Part of being a dad is letting your kids make their own mistakes.
Somewhere in the backstretch, Affirmed and Alydar started breaking away from the other horses with Alydar bursting along the rail, Affirmed ahead by a neck. Then all of a sudden Alydar’s head bopped up, as horses do when halting. The announcer exclaimed that Alydar had “dropped back very suddenly and appears to be out of the race.” Never giving up, Alydar gathered his mettle and made a heroic charge, but could not quite get Affirmed as they charged down the stretch. Affirmed had gained too much ground.
My wager was secure (so I thought), so I went to pick up my easy money. But as we went to cash our bets, an INQUIRY sign appeared with the announcer telling everyone to hold all bets. There was pandemonium on the track. As time dragged on seemingly forever, my father repeated several times that that was a sign the inquiry had merit. We waited and waited.
The television monitors showed the replay over and over again, with Affirmed bearing into and cutting off Alydar, forcing Alydar to check sharply and lose stride. Everywhere there was debate about the merits of the inquiry. After what seemed an eternity, the announcer finally announced that racing stewards had disqualified Affirmed, a controversial call to this day, and the crowd erupted as losers suddenly became winners and vice versa. I could not believe it, my sure fire plan had failed. Why didn’t I listen to Dad?
Fortunately for me, it was ruled that Affirmed was to move from first to second and not completely disqualified from the race. I collected my spare change in winnings, but much more importantly, my original wager which I so foolishly put at risk. Lesson learned from Dad: There is no such thing as a sure thing, and to carefully weigh the risk and rewards of a situation.
Dad won that day. That night we stopped for dinner at Red Lobster, enjoying an after-race dining tradition that my father, Rinaldo Del Gallo, Jr. started with his own father, Rinaldo Del Gallo, Sr. One day, I hope to take Rinaldo Del Gallo, IV to see the Travers.
Rinaldo Del Gallo, III is the spokesperson of the Berkshire Fatherhood Coalition, a practicing attorney, and a freelance columnist. Today is the 140th running of the Travers Stakes, and the author will be going with his father yet again.