Forty years ago today, Spectacular Bid lost his first and only race in which there was no excuse: He got beat by an older, stronger horse.
Bid had lost the Tyro Stakes in 1978 because it was his first foray into the mud, and he didn’t like it; he got beat in the Dover Stakes because Ron Franklin got trapped in between horses and hesitated to go outside with him. He lost the Belmont because of injury.
He lost the Jockey Gold Cup because of Affirmed.
Trainer Bud Delp had been talking about a Bid-Affirmed matchup since before the Belmont Stakes. Since Bid got injured before the Belmont, that put the matchup on hold for three months. Affirmed’s trainer, Laz Barrera, refused to enter Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup, and Bid missed the Woodward due to a virus. They were to finally meet in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
On race day, Bid rose at 3:00 a.m., and Groom Mo Hall greeted him with two quarts of oats. The temperature was cool; autumn was in full swing. Hall gave Bid a supply of timothy hay to help fill his belly. About an hour later, Affirmed awoke, crying for his breakfast. His groom did the same for him.
At around 5:50 a.m. Bud Delp arrived in his Cadillac limousine; he was wearing a jacket with the slogan “Spectacular Bid Is Spectacular” on the back. He went into the stall to see how Bid had made it through the night. Robert Smith, the exercise rider, would walk Bid a little to limber him up for his morning run. The horse would then be walked to cool him off, bathed, and given two more quarts of oats.
When lunchtime came and went and they got no food, the two horses knew it was race day. They fidgeted in their stalls, waiting. Bid got a little sleep, while Affirmed got antsy, nibbling at some hay in his stall.
A Strange Conversation
Sportswriter William Nack talked to Shoemaker about the race and offered some advice: get Bid out early and challenge Affirmed. “You know, if you let Affirmed get loose on the lead, you’ve got no chance, especially if you let him get away with a half in :49 or :50,” Nack told Shoemaker.
Shoemaker replied, “Yeah, I know, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“Why can’t you send your horse up there?” Nack asked.
“That’s not his style,” the jockey responded. “I’m not going to change his style.”
Finally, post time approached. The trainers and grooms put saddles and bridles on the horses. The horses paraded around the manicured paddock, which was freshly planted with an abundance of mums. The bugle called the horses to the post; the jockeys mounted and paraded their horses in front of the 36,187 fans in attendance at Belmont Park.
Affirmed was now the 3 to 5 favorite, while Spectacular Bid’s odds were at 7 to 5. With workmanlike precision, the assistant starters moved the horses into the starting gate. Only four horses would be racing that day.
Affirmed vs. Spectacular Bid
The starter pressed a button, cutting off the electric current that held the front of the gates together, and as the doors opened, the bell rang, signaling the start of the race. The crowd roared. And away they went.
Affirmed broke perfectly and jumped to a one-length lead within the first fifty yards, followed by Gallant Best. As Shoemaker had predicted, Spectacular Bid broke slowly, and he and Coastal battled it out for third, a length and a half behind.
Too Much of a Lead
Before they had even reached the clubhouse turn, Bid was behind by almost two lengths. For a front-runner like Affirmed, who refused to give up the lead once he had it, that was equivalent to a five-length lead. Even worse, Bid was boxed in by the other three horses—Gallant Best to the inside, Coastal to the outside, and Affirmed in front—and he had to settle for fourth place. When Coastal dropped back, Bid made a move to the outside and began to stalk Gallant Best and Affirmed.
The race was setting up perfectly for Affirmed. He and Gallant Best ran the first quarter in a pedestrian 25 seconds, which meant that Affirmed would have plenty of stamina left for a stretch run. Just as Nack had predicted, the pace was slow, and Affirmed was dictating the speed of the race. Affirmed ran the half-mile in 49 seconds— again, right where Nack had said he would be.
Gallant Best took the lead from Affirmed by a neck heading into the backstretch but continued the slow pace. The four horses were tightly bunched, with no more than four lengths separating them. Bid strained at the reins, but strangely, Shoemaker made no move to accelerate the pace, electing instead to keep stalking the leaders. No one was seriously challenging Gallant Best or the four-year-old champion.
Affirmed retook the lead just as Bid started to make his move on the outside; he pulled up to within a half-length of Affirmed but stayed there, still waiting for something. Seeing that Bid was not going to take the lead, Affirmed’s jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., pulled back and let Affirmed rest some more, slowing the pace yet again. Bid slowed down as well.
Going into the far turn, Affirmed gradually turned it up a notch and increased his lead to a length over Bid. Gallant Best was third, Coastal fourth. Bid made another move on Affirmed but was still a half-length behind as they rounded the far turn. Affirmed fought back, increasing his lead to a length and a half as Coastal made his move on the inside, coming to within a neck of Affirmed. Bid was now in third place. Was he tiring as he had in the Belmont? Was he not a mile-and-a-half horse?
One Last Try
Shoemaker asked for more, and Bid reached deep within. As they left the far turn and entered the homestretch, Bid, responding to the whip, slipped in between Coastal and Affirmed and pulled to within a neck. The three horses were now running almost as one, with just half a length separating them. The spectators leaped to their feet, cheering as the horses battled over the last few furlongs.
In the homestretch, Affirmed led by a neck over Spectacular Bid, but Bid kept charging. In the past, Bid could have overwhelmed his rivals with one push. But Affirmed thrived on head-to-head competition, as he had proved in his thrilling stretch runs with his Triple Crown rival Alydar.
In the last seconds, Affirmed pulled away one last time, going under the wire to win by three-quarters of a length. Coastal was third, three lengths behind and unable to keep up with the two champions. Gallant Best finished thirty-one lengths behind Coastal. The crowd roared, knowing they had seen a true battle. Bid had been unable to look Affirmed in the eye and stare him down, as he had done countless other times on the racetrack. Affirmed was the first horse that had taken control of a race and would not let go.
After the race, the Meyerhoffs were more subdued and less emotional than they had been after the Belmont, but they were disappointed in the outcome. Delp praised both horses but said, “You give Spectacular Bid the break that Affirmed had and give Affirmed the break that Bid had, the outcome might have been different.” Shoemaker agreed. “[Affirmed] outbroke my horse about a length leaving the gate. If I had gotten a better start, the pace wouldn’t have been that slow.” He refused to say that Affirmed was the better horse.
According to Steve Cady of the New York Times, the older, more mature horse had won. “What yesterday’s result seemed to support was the notion that outstanding three-year-olds rarely beat outstanding older horses in the Gold Cup. No three-year-old has won [the Jockey Club Gold Cup] since Arts and Letters succeeded in 1969,” he wrote. A maxim in horse racing is that a good four-year-old will beat a good three-year-old most of the time.
This was the case with Affirmed; he was simply a more experienced and stronger horse. It would be like an all-American college basketball senior playing a one-on-one game against an all-American high school senior.