Thirty-seven years after a seismic event shook Belmont Park, Patrice Wolfson can still feel the aftershocks.
Wolfson is the South Florida-based widow of Louis Wolfson, the iconic Wall Street financier who owned Affirmed — the last horse to capture all three legs of the Triple Crown.
“The crowd erupted; you couldn’t stand,” Wolfson said of Affirmed's victorious run in the Belmont Stakes in 1978. “It was like an earthquake. My husband was standing next to me, stoic, but my heart was beating.”
On Saturday, the ground might rattle again. American Pharoah can become the first horse since Affirmed to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Wolfson will be there — rooting for the track to rumble.
“I think to win the Triple Crown is one of the most difficult tasks of all sports,” Wolfson said recently from her Bal Harbour condo. “It’s a magical time, and if Affirmed loses that title of being the last Triple Crown winner, I will cheer and embrace American Pharoah. I think, deep down in my heart, another Triple Crown winner in no way diminishes Affirmed.”
Wolfson continued: “Part of me would say, ‘We would love to be the last,’ but on the other hand, hand it over. You’re not taking anything away.”
Like Affirmed, American Pharoah — the Kentucky-bred, Bob Baffert-trained colt — has the sporting world abuzz after triumphing at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
But unlike Affirmed, who battled powerful Alydar in all three legs, American Pharoah has no true rival.
He is the overwhelming betting favorite to win the grueling mile-and-a-half slog; Florida Derby champion Materiality is one of seven challengers aiming to play spoiler.
“The last five weeks have been surreal,” said Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah. “Great moments in one’s life happen so, so quick. Even though it’s five weeks, we’re trying to cherish, enjoy. … He is a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”
Win or lose, Saturday’s run will inject needed life into horse racing.
Interest in the Belmont Stakes is wholly dependent on the race featuring a possible Triple Crown winner. Some 90,000 are expected to pack the park Saturday, like they did a year ago.
More than 21 million people tuned into NBC last June to watch California Chrome try (and fail) to complete the trifecta at Belmont — the second-largest television audience in the race’s history. The total sum bet on the race: a record $150 million, including more than $19 million at the track alone.
Chrome’s disappointment has been the rule; American Pharoah winning Saturday would be the ultimate exception.
Since Affirmed’s legendary run in 1978, 13 horses have arrived at Belmont with a chance to complete the Triple Crown. All 13 have fallen short.
Three of them — Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002 — raced under Baffert’s tutelage. So the silver-haired legend knows the thrill of the chase and the crushing disappointment of failure.
“Hopefully he’s going to do his thing and finally we can break this drought,” Baffert said Friday. “I think I’m responsible for the drought. I probably should have won it a couple of times before.”
Baffert turned 62 this year; horse racing’s golden years are little more than a distant memory from his youth.
In the 1970s, the sport was never better. Tracks were packed around the country, and three horses won the Triple Crown in a span of six years. Secretariat and Seattle Slew swept all three legs in 1973 and 1977, respectively.
A year later, it was Affirmed’s turn.
For Louis Wolfson, it was a triumphant second act in a remarkable, yet checkered life.
The Floridian was a self-made millionaire and one of the country’s first modern corporate raiders. He perfected the art of the takeover. Wolfson financed feature films. He owned streetcars and newspapers, including the long-defunct Miami Beach Sun.
But he also blurred the legal line — and on a couple of occasions, even crossed it. Wolfson served prison time in the 1960s for selling unregistered shares, perjury and obstruction of justice.
His convictions ultimately led to the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. Fortas collected a $20,000 annual salary from Wolfson’s foundation for consulting work, and the ethical lapse cost him his seat on the bench.
But just as Wolfson’s run as a financier was winding down, his racing career took off. He owned Roman Brother, the 1965 American Horse of the Year. He made an unsuccessful bid to buy Churchill Downs.
And he established a horse farm near Ocala, Florida. In early 1975, it produced a fleet-footed chestnut colt named Affirmed.
Three years later, on a June afternoon on Long Island, the champion thoroughbred thundered down the stretch and into history.
Wolfson will be back at Belmont on Saturday, where she hopes history will be repeated — with a finish as close as in 1978.
But as for her husband, who died in 2007 — would he want Affirmed’s long run as racing’s last great horse to finally end?
“That’s a good question,” Patrice Wolfson said. “He was a very generous person. … But on the other hand, to have that honor of being the last is something you want to hold onto.”