Lexington, Kentucky native Wes Lanter has spent most of his life surrounded by some of the best thoroughbreds of the last generation. The veteran horseman served as both stallion groom and/or stallion manager at the most successful and popular breeding farms in the Bluegrass, including Spendthrift Farm, Three Chimneys and Overbrook Farm, in addition to a pair of separate stints at the Kentucky Horse Park. Over his nearly 30-plus-year career, the 52-year-old has worked with three Triple Crown winners, both thoroughbred and Standardbred, five additional Kentucky Derby winners and multiple champions and Hall of Famers.
A walking encyclopedia of most things thoroughbred racing, Lanter is sharing his favorite stories about the horses whose lives he considers himself to be privileged to have been a part of throughout his career. Since leaving his position as Equine Section Supervisor at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions in 2015, Lanter has been working on compiling stories about his horses and deciding where his next life chapter will come from. Lanter also is the proud father of 20-year-old Noah, a standout baseball pitcher and outfielder at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota.
Now, nearly two seasons after American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, Lanter reflects on his time spent with the previous runner to sweep the coveted crown, Affirmed.
Lived: February 21, 1975 – January 12, 2001.
Owned/Bred by: Harbor View Farm (FL).
Trained by: Laz Barerra.
Ridden by: Steve Cauthen, Angel Cordero, Laffit Pincay Jr.
Career Record: 29-22-5-1, $2,393,818.
- 1978 Triple Crown Winner.
- 1978 & 1979 Horse of the Year.
- 1977 Champion 2-year-old.
- 1978 Champion 3-year-old.
- 1979 Champion Older Horse.
Notable Victories: Hopeful Stakes, Futurity Stakes, Laurel Futurity, Santa Anita Derby, Hollywood Futurity, Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Strub Stakes, Santa Anita Handicap, Californian Stakes, Hollywood Gold Cup, Woodward Stakes, Jockey Club Gold Cup.
The Stallion, the Starlet and the Famous Stone
In 1982, following the death of the great stallion Nashua, Spendthrift Farm owner Leslie Combs II commissioned artist Liza Todd-Tivey to create a half-scale statue of the standout sire with his much-beloved groom, Clem Brooks, to be placed in front of the massive stallion complex on the farm located on Iron Works Pike outside Lexington. Tivey was the daughter of Academy Award-winning actress Elizabeth Taylor, who, one day in the 1980s on her way to the spring races at Keeneland and accompanied by actor George Hamilton, wanted to stop by Spendthrift and see the statue, as well as meet Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
“It was the early 80s,” Lanter says of that day more than 30 years ago. “We had turned Affirmed out for the afternoon; he bred his mares in the morning and was in his paddock for the afternoon when we [the stallion barn] got word that Liz Taylor was coming to see Affirmed. Of course she wanted to see her daughter’s statue, but Affirmed was on her agenda. And, of course, we literally got about five minutes notice.
“At the time I was a swing groom at Spendthrift, covering for guys who had their day off or were on vacation. It was the best for me at the time, because I got to spend time with all of the different horses there.
“So here’s the thing about Affirmed and me. When he won the Triple Crown, I was 14 and I grew up literally two miles from Calumet, where Alydar was born and returned to after he retired. I don’t know why, but I loved Affirmed well before I loved Alydar. It was almost sacrilege in this town and I don’t know why, maybe it was “The Kid” [jockey and fellow Kentuckian Steve Cauthen] or maybe it was prophetic in that I’d eventually be lucky enough to spend so much time with Affirmed, I don’t know. But it was literally a dream come true to get the opportunity to be around him when I got to Spendthrift.”
With Taylor and Hamilton soon pulling into the Spendthrift driveway, Lanter was asked by his boss, Ernie Frazer, to pull the stallion from his paddock and lead him up the road toward the stallion barn. Lanter and Affirmed stopped to greet Taylor and Hamilton in front of the breeding shed and while neither celebrity was afraid of the big imposing horse, they cautiously approached and, before long, Taylor had her hands on Affirmed’s face, softly whispering to the shiny chestnut.
“I wasn’t worried because Affirmed was always a consummate gentleman,” Lanter explained of the stallion’s meeting with the famous actress. “But he, um, definitely loved his job, so I was a little bit aware he could get more excited than he should. I mean, here was Elizabeth Taylor. National Velvet herself, violet-colored eyes and all, standing there and rubbing the muzzle of Affirmed. I remember exactly what she said about him, too. She said he looked like ‘burnished gold’ a couple of times. I’d never heard that before, but she was right. He did have that color.
“And as she was rubbing Affirmed’s muzzle, everyone watching couldn’t help noticing the ring on her finger. It was the most enormous diamond. We called it the ‘Richard Burton diamond.’”
Lanter was referring to the 33.19-carat diamond engagement ring the actress received five years after she married actor Richard Burton the first time in the early 1960s. Known as the “Elizabeth Taylor Diamond”, it was widely reported that she wore it almost daily. And the large, flashy bauble was on her finger as she met and nuzzled Affirmed that spring day and the horse showed some interest in it.
“I was standing there thinking, ‘God, please don’t let Affirmed bite her [expletive] finger off,” Lanter joked. “He had so much class and I knew it wasn’t likely, but I also know anything is possible with stallions. I knew we’d all be in big trouble for a number of reasons if he got that diamond, but also that we’d be out there in his paddock combing through his poop for a week!”
Moving On and Saying Goodbye
In the late 80s, Lanter left Spendthrift for a position in the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions, and shortly thereafter the famous Lexington stallion station went bankrupt, thanks to a series of events that proved fatal to the farm’s survival — the weakening of the thoroughbred breeding market, a failed public stock offering and multiple lawsuits from investors who bought into the farm.
Many of Spendthrift’s standout stallions were being relocated; Seattle Slew was sent to Three Chimneys by his owners and Affirmed went briefly to Calumet Farm where he stood next to his greatest rival, Alydar.
The day before Affirmed departed Spendthrift for good, Lanter swung by for a visit. At the time he had no idea it would be the great chestnut’s last day at Spendthrift or that it’d be the last time he’d ever see him. Life and career and family would take Lanter not just all over the commonwealth, but also all over the globe.
Looking back, he was grateful to have been there that day.
“I just went out to see the guys,” Lanter said. “It was totally a lucky coincidence. I had no idea he was leaving the next day. He was a spectacular horse and it was a spectacular time. He was the horse that I’m sure most other horses looked at and said, ‘I wish I were him.’ I mean, he won 22 of 29 starts and 14 Grade 1s. I can’t imagine any horse today winning half that number of Grade 1s, but 14? Are you kidding me? I mean, without even mentioning the rivalry with Alydar, he was a machine on the racetrack.
“Years later I saw John Williams, who had essentially been Affirmed’s manager, at the Horse Park one day. He told me he’d actually wanted me to go to Calumet with the horse when he left Spendthrift. I told him he was about a minute too late and at that point, it was what it was. But I will always think of it as an opportunity missed.”
When Affirmed passed away at his final home of Darley at Jonabell at age 26 due to the infirmities of old age in 2001, Lanter remembers reading about it in the local papers long before news traveled like wildfire on the Internet and social media. By then, he was a few years into his duties as stallion manager at Overbrook Farm.
“I remember that day well. It was a Saturday and Affirmed had died the day before,” Lanter recalled. “I felt sad, like I did when any of my boys died. But I also felt so incredibly fortunate to have known him at all and spend time with him, having been a big fan from when he was first racing. I thought about him a lot when American Pharoah was pursuing the Triple Crown. Affirmed was the last to do it and, through it all, I thought mostly that the current generation probably wasn’t even alive when Affirmed won the Triple Crown and never got to appreciate a horse like Affirmed. As good as American Pharoah was and as much as I loved having a Triple Crown winner after so many years, I did wish the new fans could have seen Affirmed run.
“Not too many people can say they knew Affirmed and cared for him; it was a tremendous honor to have had him be a part of my life.”