Spectacular Bid: One of the Greatest Ever?

Spectacular BidWhen I was 10, I saw Spectacular Bid win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with ease. When he finished third in the Belmont Stakes, I was crushed. But life went on; I heard something about a safety pin, but I brushed Bid aside and looked for the next Kentucky Derby winner in 1980.

Little did I know that Bid would go on to have a stellar career – perhaps one of the best ever. Here are some facts about “the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle”:

  • Spectacular Bid raced 30 times and won 26 of those races. He finished second twice, third once, and fourth in the other race. (He was a 2-year-old and didn’t like the slop at Monmouth Park.) That’s an 86.1% winning percentage, third only to Native Dancer and Man O’ War among the top tier of horses of the 20th century, according to the Blood-Horse magazine.
  • If you take away his 2-year-old season – a year in which many colts and fillies are still maturing and learning the ropes of racing – he won 19 of 21 races.
  • He had winning streaks of 12 and 10 races, including an undefeated 4-year-old season in which he won all 9 of his races.
  • He raced on 15 different tracks, winning at 14 of them, and traveled over 10,000 miles during his career.
  • He set seven track records and equaled another. In preparation for the Hutcheson Stakes early in his 3-year-old season, he tied a track record during a workout.
  • In the 1980 Strub Stakes, he set a world record for 1 1/4 miles on dirt- 1:57 4/5. The record still stands today.
  • In their book A Century of Champions, authors John Randall and Tony Morris, using Timeform figures, places Spectacular Bid ninth in the world during the 20th century – third in the United States, even ahead of Man O’ War.
  • He won 2-Year-Old Colt of the Year, 3-Year-Old Colt of the Year, and 1980 Horse of the Year. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982.
  • In a fantasy horse race conducted by the Louisville Courier-Journal staff involving the greatest horses of all time, writers chose Spectacular Bid winning the race over Citation. Secretariat finished third.
  • Former Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer said of Spectacular Bid: “I think Spectacular Bid could reasonably be rated as a close number two on the all-time list, after Secretariat, and he deserves extra credit for his great consistency.”
  • In perhaps the ultimate show of respect for the horse, Spectacular Bid won the 1980 Woodward Stakes in a walkover – no other horse dared to face him. He ran unopposed and clocked the 1 1/4 miles in 2:02 2/5 – the same time as his Kentucky Derby win. It was the first walkover since Coaltown in 1949, and the last one to occur in a stakes race.

The main knock against Spectacular Bid is that he never won at 1 1/2 miles. But he was injured by the infamous safety pin in the Belmont Stakes, and was narrowly defeated by a stronger, more mature Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1979. He probably would have won the 1980 Jockey Club Gold Cup, but an injury forced him to be scratched and retired.

Still dubious? Perhaps it’s given you food for thought and made you reconsider Spectacular Bid’s place in history. I personally have Bid third all-time behind Man O’ War and Secretariat.

Who’s in your top 3?




Visiting Spectacular Bid’s Grave

The marvelous madness of Manhattan seemed to be in another time zone as my wife and I drove toward Unadilla, N.Y., population 4,392. The air was crisp and clear, and the trees’ colors were peaking. It was a breathtaking ride and a far cry from the 95-degree steambath we left back in Georgia.

Milfer Farm signWe got to Milfer Farm, the final resting place of Spectacular Bid, around 12:40 p.m. It’s a plain, unassuming lot with a house near the road; a sign in the front yard showed that it was indeed a farm. There was a barn behind the house with several paddocks nearby, but a farmhand told me Spectacular Bid’s grave was on the other side of County Road 3. Apparently Milfer Farm was bigger than I originally thought.

Finding the Grave

We bounced our way over to the other side of the farm, dodging potholes and mud puddles on the old dirt road. We passed the stallion barn, and in the distance I saw a circle of paving stones with a medium-sized headstone in the middle. This had to be it.

It was. Here was the grave of my favorite horse, the horse that I had picked to win the Kentucky Derby at the age of 10 because I liked his name, the horse over whom I had obsessed for the past three and a half years of my life.

And the tears came.

I cried for Spectacular Bid and the safety pin that hurt more than his forefoot – it took away his immortality as he lost the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.

I cried for his decline in stature as his stud career went south, with precious few foals becoming stakes winners.

I cried for Ron Franklin and a life beaten down by drugs.

I cried for Bud Delp as he fought for legitimacy against the Establishment.

I cried for all my cast of characters. But especially Bid.

Spectacular Bid's graveI stood there for what seemed like an hour, thinking of all that Bid had done in his lifetime. I never got to see him live – he was only a ghostly, gray horse on my black and white TV in 1979. I knew nothing of his exploits at 4, of his world record or undefeated season then. After the Belmont failure, I had gone on to other horses, having forgotten about him.

A Good Life

But he lived on and had a good retirement, first running around with elites such as Secretariat at Claiborne Farm, and then being the big fish in the small pond and Milfer – just like his trainer was in Maryland. I hope he remembered his races with fondness. He loved to run, and did it well – as good as any horse who ever looked through a bridle.

I finally moved toward the grave, laid flowers at the foot of his headstone, and put a chocolate donut (his favorite) on top. I think he would have gobbled it up in two bites.

I kissed the gravestone and said, “Goodbye Bid. I hope I made you proud.” And we got in our car and drove back down the dirt road.

Oct. 8, 1978: Bid Beats Them All in Champagne Stakes

With Spectacular Bid’s win at the World’s  Playground Stakes in September 1978, the competition for  the Eclipse Award championship became more complicated. The winner might be determined in the Champagne Stakes, which was held at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York—a track where Delp had entered only 15 horses in his career and had won just twice.

General Assembly, a son of Secretariat, would be there, as would Calumet Farm’s Tim the Tiger, who had won his first five races. Horse racing experts had expected these two to battle it out for Champion 2-Year-Old Male, but Bid’s showing in the World’s Playground brought a new dimension to the race.

Switching Jockeys

Determined to have Bid win the Champagne Stakes, Delp told young jockey Ron Franklin that he was being replaced by veteran jockey Jorge Velasquez. “Ronnie’s only ridden for about seven months,” Delp explained to the press, “and he’s not familiar with this big track. I picked out Jorge because he’s an old pro. I want no mistakes. Ronnie understands. He wants the best for the horse.” Franklin’s poor performance in the Dover Stakes was still in the back of his mind.

Spectacular Bid was bettors’ third choice behind General Assembly and Tim the Tiger. He started the race from the inside number 1 post—never a good position for a horse because of the possibility of getting boxed in along the rail by the other horses, a situation Bid had encountered in the Dover Stakes. Bid left the post in his usual plodding manner, while the quick-moving Breezing On went straight to the front to set the first-quarter pace in a moderate 23 1/5 seconds.

Three furlongs into the race, Velasquez recognized the slower pace and chirped into Bid’s ear. Instead of moving on his own, as he usually did, the gray colt responded like lightning. With his light, seemingly effortless gait, he quickly put real estate behind him, passing several horses and moving into second place. He then pulled up alongside Breezing On and eyed the front-running colt.

Breezing On tried to do the same, but he could not look Bid in the eye. Discouraged and intimidated, Breezing On dropped back immediately while Bid surged to the front, traveling along the rail. At the half-mile pole, he held a one-length lead over General Assembly, with Breezing On third and Tim the Tiger fourth. General Assembly tried to challenge him, but Bid kicked it into a higher gear on the homestretch, with some urging by Velasquez. Tim the Tiger was inexplicably fading, and fading fast.

Bid stretched his lead to four lengths before Velasquez tightened the reins, trying with all his might to slow him down. Bid was ahead by two and three-quarters lengths when he hit the finish line. The time for the mile-long race was a fast 1:344/5, only two-fifths of a second slower than the stakes record set by the great Seattle Slew in 1976. If Velasquez had let him race through the finish line, Bid could have beaten that record. General Assembly finished second, and Crest of the Wave was third. Tim the Tiger was a well-beaten fourth, nine lengths back.

A ‘Higher Gear’

What made the difference in this race was the discovery of a new, higher gear—something Bid would continue to use throughout his career. According to writer William Nack, “He had two or three different gears. Bid could move in a race, and then be steadied and then move again. He was one of those horses.” Just when he seemed to be out of it, or when he seemed to tire, or when he faced a challenger, he would find that faster pace and accelerate ahead of any competition.

Russ Harris of the Thoroughbred Record did not put much stock in comparing records from different years, which involved different surface conditions, different equipment, and different competition. Instead, he looked at the other mile-long event on the program that day, which took place under the same conditions and on the same track. In that race, a four-year-old mare won in 1:381/5. Bid’s time was more than three seconds faster than that of a horse two years older than he was.

“He’s a nice horse,” Velasquez said. “He didn’t break too sharp, but he still made it by what, three lengths? We got to the eighth pole, and nobody was coming. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hope he gets [to the Triple Crown races].”

When asked whether he was disappointed about losing the mount on Bid, Franklin said he took things as they came and was not upset about it. “I haven’t been riding for very long,” he admitted. “I guess my time will come later when I can ride up here. Maybe next year.”