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.”