In the spring of 1977, Harbor View Farm owner Louis Wolfson sent a 2-year-old colt to trainer Guillermo “Willie” Barrera at Hialeah in south Florida for final polishing before his racing debut.
Wolfson, who campaigned 1965 co-Horse of the Year Roman Brother, couldn’t imagine what the future held in store for the homebred chestnut son of Exclusive Native-Won’t Tell You, owned by himself and wife Patrice. But Barrera knew almost instantly Affirmed had championship potential.
“I told Mr. Wolfson, this is the best horse you’ve ever had,” said the 82-year-old Barrera, who lives in Tampa with his significant other, Gladys Olivares. “Mr. Wolfson kept telling me ‘Remember, I had Roman Brother.’
“I just said, ‘This one is better.’ ”
Two weeks later, Barrera sent the Florida-bred Affirmed to his older brother, the late Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera, at Belmont Park, where Affirmed broke his maiden at first asking on May 24, 1977. He went on to win seven of nine starts to earn the first of his five Eclipse Awards, as top 2-year-old.
The following year, of course, Affirmed became Thoroughbred racing’s last Triple Crown winner, his stirring duels against Alydar still fresh in the minds of millions of fans. His jockey was the dynamic Steve Cauthen, who turned 18 the week of the 1978 Kentucky Derby and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1994.
Tampa Bay Downs relived the legacy of Affirmed and Cauthen on Saturday during its Festival Preview Day Presented by Lambholm South. Cauthen, who lives on his Thoroughbred farm in Verona, Ky. with his wife Amy and their three daughters, signed autographs and posed for photographs for two hours on the first floor of the grandstand in front of the Gift Shop.
Cauthen was accompanied to Tampa Bay Downs by his close friend Steve Wolfson, the son of the late Louis Wolfson and brother of top trainer Marty Wolfson. Cauthen and Steve Wolfson have remained close since the glory days of Harbor View Farm and Affirmed.
There were nine brothers and three sisters in the Barrera family, and eight of the men became horse trainers. Willie, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1959, is the only remaining sibling.
He and Gladys Olivares were basking in the sunshine on the grandstand apron Saturday when they learned Steve Wolfson was at the track with Cauthen.
Barrera and Wolfson had not seen each other for more than 20 years, but when they reunited Saturday they could almost glimpse Affirmed and Cauthen outlasting Alydar in the Belmont through moistened eyes.
“When I saw Willie, it just brought back so many pleasant memories for both of us,” said Steve Wolfson, a business consultant who lives in Ormond Beach, Fla. “It was like bumping into an old friend at a reunion and the time had never passed. He said ‘I love you’ and I said ‘I love you, too.’ Neither one of us wanted it to end.”
Wolfson recalled seeing Willie around the barns when he was working for his brother Laz and when the Wolfson family would visit the backstretch during the Saratoga meeting. “Willie is about the nicest, kindest man you could meet,” Wolfson said. “He always had a smile for you and never spoke an unkind word. He is such a sensitive, compassionate – and passionate – man, and you can see that in his face.
“Seeing him again was very meaningful. It was one of the highlights of me being at Tampa Bay Downs. We cared for all the Barreras, but Willie was truly special.”
Willie and Gladys, who have known each other more than 40 years, came together after the 2007 death of her husband, former jockey Jose Olivares. She knows the history of the Barrera clan as well as anyone, and recognized how much seeing Steve Wolfson again meant to Willie. “Willie and Steve were always friendly, and you could see how much they loved each other when they embraced,” Gladys said. “It was all Willie was talking about (Saturday) night.”
But Willie, who only stopped training five years ago, found himself nearly speechless when he saw Wolfson. “I asked him about his brothers, Marty and Gary, but I couldn’t talk much because there were a lot of memories,” Barrera said. “His family was always nice to me. I almost cried because I had not seen him for such a long time.”
Steve Wolfson plans for their next meeting to take place much sooner. “The last thing I told Willie was, I’m going to let (Tampa Bay Downs officials) know when I’m coming back so we can get together.”
A lasting friendship affirmed.
On Sunday at Tampa Bay Downs, Judy Hale’s 6-year-old gelding Sammytheredrocker won the Cody’s Original Roadhouse Race of the Week, a $25,000 claiming affair at five furlongs. Robert G. Smith trains Sammytheredrocker, who was ridden by Danny Coa.
In the second race, a seven-furlong maiden claimer at seven furlongs, 10-pound apprentice jockey Whitney Valls won her first race at Tampa Bay Downs aboard the 3-year-old filly Dream Every Dream. She is owned by Philip DiCosmo and trained by Anthony Pecoraro.
Live racing resumes Wednesday at Tampa Bay Downs with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in the Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.