Sept. 23, 1978: Spectacular Bid Wows the World’s Playground

Spectacular Bid’s loss in the Dover Stakes in 1978 was his second loss in a row. The 2-year-old’s record in four starts was two wins, one second, and one fourth—respectable, but not outstanding. Trainer Bud Delp was furious with young jockey Ron Franklin for getting Bid trapped on the rail. “No way the horse should have got beat,” Delp said. “If Ronnie hadn’t had him in trouble, he’d [have] won by 10.”

Delp realized that if he had a special horse on his hands, he would need a special jockey. The Meyerhoffs’ first choice was 18-year-old Steve Cauthen, the whiz kid behind Affirmed’s Triple Crown run the year before. He was the same age as Franklin, but his experience made him look like a 30-year-old. He was the first jockey to win $6 million in one season and was the nation’s most winning jockey in 1977. In 1978 he was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

Rejected by Cauthen

Delp called Cauthen’s agent, Lenny Goodman, and asked about the jockey’s availability. He told Goodman he had a special horse, one that could win the Triple Crown, and owners with deep pockets. He wanted Cauthen to ride Spectacular Bid in all his races, starting with the World’s Playground Stakes in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 23.

Goodman was coy, telling Delp he would think about it and get back to him. Delp did not like to be played with, so he went with Franklin again for the World’s Playground. The seven-furlong race would feature some of the more talented 2-year-olds, including Strike Your Colors and Groton High, the two horses that had defeated Bid in his last two races.

That would not be the case this time.

Spectacular Bid Waltzes in World’s Playground

Franklin took Spectacular Bid to the lead after the pacesetter, Honest Moment, posted a blistering quarter mile in twenty-two seconds. Bid was ahead by two lengths after a half mile and six lengths after six furlongs. “After that it looked like bowling pins falling over,” Delp said. “One horse after another coming at him and falling back.”

Bid kept going and did not let up; he finished the final furlong in eleven and four-fifths seconds, crossed the finish line fifteen lengths ahead of Crest of the Wave, and set a new track record in the process—an astounding 1:20 4/5. His margin of victory is still a record. Usually, by the end of a race, the split times are much slower because the horses are tiring, but Bid’s final furlong was almost as fast as his first. Coastal, the horse that had won the other division of the Tyro Stakes in the slop, was a badly beaten fifth, 17 lengths behind Bid.

“We knew Spectacular Bid was a serious talent going in, but what he did at Atlantic City, winning by fifteen lengths in 1:20 and change, well . . . two-year-olds just don’t do that,” said Brian Zipse, senior writer with Horse Racing Nation. Bid had made his statement. And the horse racing community turned its collective head toward Atlantic City and raised its eyebrow at this horse owned, trained, and ridden by a group of Marylanders.

Lenny Goodman called Delp the next day, and the trainer’s son Doug took a message: “Lenny . . . Cauthen . . . Idiot . . . Please call.” When Goodman finally talked to Delp, he reiterated his earlier message—he had been an idiot—and asked if the offer for Cauthen to ride Bid was still available. Delp replied that he would take a rain check and hung up.

Sept. 20, 1980 – Bid Wins in a Walkover in the Woodward

Spectacular Bid Walkover in Woodward StakesSpectacular Bid missed the Marlboro Cup when trainer Bud Delp balked at the high weights put on the horse. Up next on Bid’s agenda was the Woodward Stakes, the race he had missed the previous year because of a virus.

The challengers were dwindling, since they were probably only racing for second and third-place money. Talk started of a walkover, a one-horse race in which there were no challengers.

What a Walkover Would Mean for Spectacular Bid

“[A walkover] would symbolize in the most tangible form they know of that Spectacular Bid is truly the greatest horse of modern times,” wrote Barry Irwin of the Thoroughbred Record. Since it was not a handicap, Bid would be carrying only 126 pounds. That scared away a lot of the competition. Winter’s Tale was scratched after X-rays revealed a chip in the bone above his knee.

Only two other horses were entered—Temperance Hill, winner of the 1980 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes, and sprinter Dr. Patches. Owners of both horses said they would run their horses if the New York Racing Association wanted them to, but curiously, they were not asked to run. After meeting with NYRA officials, the owners of Dr. Patches and Temperance Hill scratched their horses.

This meant that Bid would run the Woodward by himself. It would be the first walkover since 1949, when Coaltown had gone to the starting gate alone at the Havre de Grace Racetrack. According to Brian Landman of the Tampa Bay Times, it was racing’s greatest gesture of respect.

No Horses = Small Purse

In hearing about the Woodward walkover, the Meyerhoffs also got a surprise announcement: Since there were no other horses in the race, officials had the option of giving the winner only half the guaranteed purse, plus the nomination fees, but not the entry money.

Spectacular Bid would get $73,000 for winning the race, but that was all. He also had to make a real effort; he couldn’t just canter around the racetrack for a mile and a quarter. The Meyerhoffs were furious with the decision and talked of racing under protest or not racing him at all.

Delp was livid. He accused NYRA officials of chasing Dr. Patches and Temperence Hill away from the race to repay him for withdrawing from the Marlboro Cup. NYRA racing secretary Lenny Hale would not say whether that was true.

“We felt like the New Yorkers got together and they decided that they were going to do this to us,” Tom Meyerhoff said. There was still some bad blood between the two camps, dating from the feud between Ron Franklin and Angel Cordero, the safety pin incident at the Belmont, and the weight assignments for the Marlboro Cup.

The Walkover Begins

In the end, Bid showed up and walked onto the track alone, a post parade of one, with boos and catcalls still lingering over Delp’s decision to withdraw from the Marlboro. “Everybody else was at the Marlboro, where were you?” one person asked. Bid was not used to the boos; he had not heard any since the Belmont Stakes. It was unfair, but New York fans have little sympathy for anyone, much less a horse.

Bid was loaded into the starting gate—alone—and when the bell clanged, he took off by himself. He needed no challengers to run a good race; all he needed was his love of running, and he ran like an animal uncaged. Jockey Bill Shoemaker had to hold him back to prevent him from wasting too much energy. He galloped the one and a quarter miles under strong restraint in an impressive 2:02 2/5—the same time in which he had finished the Kentucky Derby.

Bid earned his $73,000—half of what he would have earned if just one other horse had run. His winning streak was at 10. He remained unbeaten during 1980. Despite the bitter feelings associated with the race, Delp had always dreamed of seeing Bid in a walkover, and it finally came true.

Why I Wrote Spectacular Bid

Horses racingWhen I was 9 years old, barely over 4 feet tall and weighing 60 pounds with my shoes on, I knew I would be a jockey when I got older. I was the smallest boy in my class, and I figured that if I did not grow anymore, I could always ride horses for a living.

Racehorses fascinated me. To see the jockeys riding a thousand-pound animal, bobbing along with their hands on the reins, their feet high in the stirrups and their head buried in the horse’s mane, coaxing them, pleading them, and sometimes whipping them into riding a good race, stirred something in my soul.

I believed that the horses listened to their jockeys, understood them, and gave it their all, and that only the strongest, most intelligent and competitive horses won; like an Olympic athlete, some just had the will to win. They were almost human in their determination.

The Black Stallion bookI read every one of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books. I watched my first Kentucky Derby in 1977 at the age of 8, when Seattle Slew won the second of three Triple Crowns (winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year) during the 1970s.

In what would become an annoying and frustrating habit over the years, I chose not to pull for the favorite, opting instead for the horse with the best name—in this case, Run Dusty Run, whom I liked because my cat’s name was Dusty. However, Run Dusty Run did not run fast enough, failing to catch Seattle Slew at the wire and taking second place by 1 3/4 lengths.

Still, I was hooked. I watched the next two races of the Triple Crown on television, and when the Crown had been decided, Seattle Slew the holder and along with it a place in immortality, I counted down the days until the next Derby. My bicycle became my steed, and I raced invisible horses on my way to and from the library when I checked out Walter Farley books. I stalked imaginary front-runners before making my move down the homestretch, which was the road I lived on; the finish line was my neighbor’s driveway.

A human-like quality

The horses I saw on television—in north Georgia I was too far from any racetrack to see them live and up close—did seem human at times, reacting to horses passing them, putting in the extra effort and drive down the homestretch. And from time to time, a superathlete would emerge with a heart and drive that equaled the best human athlete. (ESPN even named Secretariat the 35th greatest athlete of the twentieth century.)

I believed that these horses wanted to win, wanted to make their owners and trainers proud, and when they did win, they would prance about with the strut of a winner, knowing that on that day, no one was their equal. And that is true. You can watch the competitive nature of Thoroughbreds when they are foals—they try to outrun each other, try to establish dominance.

Jockeys will swear that when a horse comes alongside another horse, in a race or in practice, they will eye one another and try harder to outrace each other. The better horse eyes the other down, and the defeated horse succumbs to a broken heart, sliding back and giving way. Even stallions, always placed in different paddocks because of their tendency to fight each other, will race each other down the fence line. “They fall out of their mothers wanting to beat you,” says Michael C. Cameron, a trainer from Paris, Kentucky. “That’s what they are. They’re bred, born, and raised to be world-class professional athletes.”

In my TV racing world, when the starting bell clanged and the horses sprung out of the gate, I was at a loss to know where my horse was, as we still owned a small black-and-white television. I had to rely on the race announcer to find my horse, and then squint hard to keep my eye on him or her as the pack thundered into the first turn. My level of anticipation grew as they entered the far turn as I knew that the race was ending soon.

And as they came out of the turn, Dave Johnson’s announcement of “And down the stretch they come!” sent chills down my spine: I knew I was about to see the most exciting 30 seconds in sports, a sprint to the finish where anything could happen. A front-runner could valiantly hold off his challengers, or another horse could come from out of nowhere and explode past them all, going under the wire in first place, sometimes at the very last second.

Picking ’em by their names

Each year I looked forward to the first Saturday in May, when the Kentucky Derby is always run, and again, like many horse racing fans, I chose my horse not by record or pedigree, but always by his name—Believe It in 1978, Super Moment in 1980, and Flying Nashua in 1981. I believed that the horse’s personality came through in his name (I knew nothing of bloodlines, conformation, dosage indexes, training regimens, and other aspects of racing to which bettors paid attention), and a great horse would have a great name—Man o’ War, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat.

Imagine my surprise and disappointment when Gato Del Sol won the 1982 Derby (Bold Style would have been a much better winner), and when Ferdinand won the 1986 Derby (Rampage was my pick).

I started reading about real horses and real racing. I discovered that Secretariat and Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown victories during the 1970s were unusual; only eight other horses in the past eighty years had done what they did in 1973 and 1977, respectively—win all three races in the span of five weeks. Even the great Man o’ War had not completed that feat, for his owner believed that the distance of the Kentucky Derby—one and a quarter miles—was too great for a three-year-old so early in the spring. (Three-year-old horses were adolescents; their bones were still growing, and the stress of a long race could potentially injure the horse.)

Other great horses—Native Dancer, Nashua, Northern Dancer, Tim Tam, Majestic Prince, Riva Ridge—had failed in their attempts to win the Crown, winning just two of the three races. However, when Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, beating Alydar in all three races by a smaller margin of victory each time, I thought it was an easy task. In six years, there had been three Triple Crown winners. Experts debated why this was—better breeding, worse breeding that made the good horses stand out better, better training methods, or better equipment.

Spectacular Bid

In 1979, it was supposed to be Spectacular Bid’s turn. This time, the name I loved happened to belong to the favored horse (what a name! Spectacular!), and I watched him win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes with relative ease. I waited an agonizing three weeks for the Belmont, known as the Test of Champions because of its length (one and a half miles versus the Derby’s mile and a quarter and the Preakness’s even shorter mile and three-sixteenths).

I saw the horses break from the starting gate and head into the first turn, and then I watched in horror as Spectacular Bid took a way-too-early lead from a long shot that was going too fast. Bid courageously kept his lead until he entered the homestretch, where he tired and was overcome by two horses. He finished third.

The Triple Crown was not to be for Spectacular Bid. I was heartbroken. And little did I know at the time that I would not see another Triple Crown until I was late into my forties, all grown up and too tall (and too heavy) to be a jockey. American Pharoah broke the drought in 2015, becoming the first horse in thirty-seven years to win all three races.

I had picked American Pharoah as a promising colt among a crop of two-year-olds (yes, I liked the name as well, misspelled and all), watched him mature, and then pulled hard for him as he won the Derby and the Preakness. I was a nervous wreck on Belmont Day, for I had seen too many horses over the preceding 37 years win the first two and falter. I set myself up for failure, knowing that it probably was not going to happen. But when American Pharoah cruised to a 5 1/2 win over Frosted to take the Belmont, I leaped for joy. My drought—and American Thoroughbred racing’s drought—was over.

Back to Spectacular Bid. After the failure in the 1979 Belmont, I forgot about Bid—forced myself to forget the pain of that defeat—and went back to my Walter Farley books and playing football in the front yard. I did not realize in my own little world of the Triple Crown, in a world without the internet, that Bid had not stopped racing.

I had no idea that he went undefeated during his 4-year-old campaign and broke track records at will—even setting a world record for a mile and a quarter in the process, and that he retired at the age of four with 26 wins, two seconds, and one third in 30 starts—one of the best, most consistent records in American Thoroughbred history.

I learned that Spectacular Bid was an exceptional horse despite his Belmont loss—one whose story deserved to be told. It was a story that involved a rich family who owned the horse but was not part of the old Kentucky establishment—a family who bought him at an auction for the paltry sum of $37,000 and turned him into what was at the time the richest Thoroughbred in history.

It was the story of a brash, loudmouthed trainer whose confidence in his horse was unequaled, but who treated the colt with the utmost care and concern.

And it was the story of an untested, starry-eyed teenage jockey whose every move was analyzed, and who crumbled under the increasing pressure of a possible Triple Crown.

I also found out about the safety pin.