August 16, 1980: Bid Challenged in Haskell – or Was He?

Haskell poster

Poster advertising Bid’s presence in the Haskell Handicap

By the summer of 1980, Spectacular Bid had become a superstar. Racecourses around the country wanted the horse at their tracks to attract crowds. Monmouth Park printed posters announcing that Bid would race in the $250,000 Haskell Handicap August 16. It was as if the circus was coming to town.

The Haskell was a handicap, and trainer Bud Delp pressured the racing secretary to keep the weight down or his horse would not run. This presented a problem to officials, who wanted to have Bid at their track but also wanted to follow handicap rules and equalize the race so there would be some competition.

Delp won – sort of. Bid got 132 pounds for the Haskell, equal to his career-high weight, although Washington Post columnist Andrew Beyer said after his last romp under that weight, it should have been 135 or even 140.

It was a shrewd move; Delp and the Meyerhoffs were thinking ahead. But Bid’s weight of 132 pounds (as much as Affirmed ever carried) encouraged six other horses to enter the Haskell, and Bid was conceding 15 to 22 pounds to them.

Facing Bid for the first time was the impressive filly Glorious Song, who had won six of nine starts and earned more than $400,000 that year. The Haskell was held at Monmouth Park—the site of Bid’s first loss, the romp in the mud at the Tyro Stakes when Bid was a 2-year-old.

Starting as the 1–9 favorite, Bid came out of the gate slowly—seventh after a quarter mile—and had moved to just sixth after a half mile. Steelwood and Boyne Valley battled for the lead with The Cool Virginian third and Glorious Song fifth.

Fans grew nervous when they did not see Bid’s typical move on the backstretch. But Shoemaker, remaining patient, had his eye on the filly, and when she made her move heading into the turn, Spectacular Bid went with her, needing no encouragement from Shoemaker. He knew she was the one to beat.

Around the turn, Steelwood, Boyne Valley, and Tunerup were leading, with Glorious Song coming up between horses and Bid following her on the outside.

Glorious Song emerged from the turn as the leader, with Bid on her heels, four horses wide. When he tried to pass her, she held him off, battling with him down the stretch.

But Bid was not to be denied; it took several whips from Shoemaker to get him in front and pull away at the finish to win by one and three-quarters lengths. It had been a hard-fought race, given Bid’s recent victories, but he had once again found his extra gear and defeated a challenger.

Or had it been a hard-fought race?

Conspiracy theorists thought Delp was doing the same thing he had done in the San Fernando Stakes: make the race closer than it was to show that weight was affecting the horse, hoping that racing secretaries for the Marlboro would take it easy on him. If Bid had blown the competition away, 132 pounds would not be enough. But if he struggled . . .

In the winner’s circle, Delp pointed a finger at Monmouth racing secretary Kenny Lenox and said, “I told you. I told you that weight spread would make him go all out today.” He added, “That filly made him run. She’s a hell of a horse to be giving fifteen pounds to—the best filly in the country, if you ask me.”

And with that, the performance was over; the media had gotten the sound bite he wanted them to have.

Triple Crown Near-Misses: Damascus Turns Rank

DamascusTrainer Frank Whiteley knew he had a special colt in Damascus, and he knew that he might be one that one saw every generation or so. The son of Sword Dancer had won 6 of 8 races heading into the 1967 Kentucky Derby, and swept the Wood Memorial by 6 lengths. With John Nerud’s decision to drop the great Dr. Fager from contention, horse racing analysts were handing the Derby to Damascus.

Damascus Breaks a Sweat

Bettors made him the 2-1 favorite as well. But when Derby Day came, Whiteley noticed a change come over his colt. Damascus. Before the race, the usually calm horse pinned his ears back, began sweating and kicking and looked nervous as he was being saddled. As the horses paraded around the track, it got worse. Damascus fought his jockey, Bill Shoemaker, so hard that an outrider had to take control of the horse.

It continued throughout the race. When the gates opened, Damascus fought Shoemaker the whole way, and Whiteley knew his Derby chances were gone. Instead, 10-1 shot Barbs Delight took a one-length lead, running the fastest opening quarter-mile in Derby history. He lengthened his lead to two lengths until 30-1 longshot Proud Clarion moved within a head with an eighth of a mile to go. Damascus made a late charge, but had nothing left after all the agitation before the race. Proud Clarion eased past Barbs Delight to take the Derby in 2:00 3/5. Damascus managed a weak third.

Comeback

Damascus exacted revenge in the Preakness. His stablemate, Celtic Air, took the early lead while Damascus trailed the leader by 13 lengths early on. Barbs Delight, running second, briefly led but was overtaken at the quarter pole by Damascus, who, according to the Associated Press, “stormed through the stretch like a wild horse” and cruised to a 2 1/4-length victory over newcomer In Reality. Proud Clarion finished third.

The horses went on to Aqueduct, where the Belmont Stakes was temporarily being held, and Damascus was tagged as the 4-5 favorite. When the race began, Prinkipo set an early pace as Damascus lay back in fifth place. The leader soon tired, and Canadian entry Cool Reception took a two-length lead with a half-mile to go. Shoemaker urged Damascus on, and the colt responded, finally catching a stubborn Cool Reception at the eighth pole.

Then the race was his. Cool Reception broke a cannon bone in the stretch, yet still managed to finish 2 1/2 lengths behind Damascus. He had to be euthanized after the race. Gentleman James, who had been almost 17 lengths behind earlier, took third place, a half-length behind Cool Reception. Proud Clarion completed an admirable Triple Crown campaign by finishing fourth.

Damascus was only just beginning to shine. He captured 11 stakes victories that year, including a 10-length dismantling of 1966 Horse of the Year Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in the Woodward Stakes. He captured Horse of the Year in 1967 and finished his career in 1968 with 21 victories in 32 starts.

Ranked #16 in The Blood-Horse‘s Top Thoroughbreds of the Twentieth Century, he finished out of the money only once and was elected into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1974. Next to Native Dancer, Nashua and Spectacular Bid, he is one of the greatest horses to have missed the Triple Crown by one race.

Triple Crown Near-Misses: Forward Pass and the Asterisk

Forward PassAfter a decade of futility, the storied Calumet Farm seemed to be back in the spotlight. The farm had saddled seven Kentucky Derby winners and two Triple Crown winners but had not experienced victory in the Kentucky Derby since 1958’s Tim Tam.

Now it had another Derby contender with Forward Pass. The colt had won only 3 of 10 starts at 2 but had rebounded with wins in the 1968 Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. His only real competition was Dancer’s Image, the son of Native Dancer, who suffered from sore ankles and had to stand in ice buckets for two hours a day.

Derby Disqualification

When the gates opened on the 1968 Derby, there was an immediate collision between the two horses caused by Gleaming Sword. Kentucky Sherry set a mercurial pace with the fastest opening quarter-mile and three-quarters of a mile in Derby history. He built a two-length lead, but soon began to tire. Forward Pass was right there to take the lead early in the stretch. But here came Dancer’s Image. The colt, who had been 15 lengths behind, responded to urging from jockey Bobby Ussery, who had dropped his whip at the quarter pole.

It didn’t matter. Dancer’s Image overtook Forward Pass in the stretch and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

And then he didn’t.

A post-race drug test revealed the existence of Phenylbutazone (“Bute”) in Dancer’s Image’s system – an anti-inflammatory drug that was legal in many states, but not Kentucky. Trainer Louis Cavalaris denied that he had given the colt the drug, but three days after the race, stewards disqualified Dancer’s Image. It was the first disqualification of a Derby winner in the race’s 94-year history. Forward Pass, who finished second, was awarded first place.

Preakness Disqualification

The controversy would linger for years in the courts, but horse racing could not wait for that. Two weeks later, the two colts renewed their rivalry in the Preakness. As in the Derby, the two bumped at the start, allowing 87-1 longshot Martin’s Jig to take the lead and set a pedestrian pace. Forward Pass trailed about four lengths back, while Dancer’s Image plodded away nine lengths back.

Early in the homestretch, Forward Pass made his move and took the lead. Dancer’s Image also worked his way up toward the front, moving between horses and bumping 173-1 shot Martin’s Jig in the process. But his stretch run came up short this time as Forward Pass won by an impressive six lengths over Out of the Way. Dancer’s Image was a head behind in third place.

And then he wasn’t.

For the second straight race, stewards disqualified Dancer’s Image, this time for bumping Martin’s Jig. He was demoted to eighth place for the infraction, and another asterisk appeared on a Triple Crown race.

A Tiring Belmont

Despite the Derby controversy, Forward Pass was in a position to win the Triple Crown. A victory in the Belmont Stakes was awaiting him and immortality.

Dancer’s Image’s ankles had finally caught up with him; he was retired after the Preakness. Without the chance of knocking into the colt this time, Forward Pass went to the lead at the start, taking a 1 1/2-length lead for the first mile and a quarter. But Stage Door Johnny, a fresh colt who just won his maiden 24 days earlier, came from nine lengths back and overtook Forward Pass in the homestretch to win.

Forward Pass came back to win the American Derby and shared 3-Year-Old Horse of the Year honors with Stage Door Johnny. He retired after his 3-year-old season, amassing 10 wins, 4 seconds and 2 thirds in 23 starts.

The Kentucky Racing Commission finally approved Phenylbutazone in 1974 after medical research showed that it didn’t enhance a horse’s performance.

For more information on Dancer’s Image and the disqualification, read Milton C. Toby’s Dancer’s Image: The Forgotten Story of the 1968 Kentucky Derby.