At Keystone Racetrack in Philadelphia on November 11, 1978, Bid ended an outstanding 2-year-old season with a dominating six-length victory in the Heritage Stakes. Trainer Bud Delp wanted Spectacular Bid to run in one more race before his 2-year-old campaign was over—the Heritage Stakes on November 11—which, if he won, would help jockey Ron Franklin become Apprentice Jockey of the Year.
Some questioned why Bid needed to run in the Heritage Stakes, since he had all but wrapped up 2-Year-Old Male Horse of the Year honors. It was only two weeks after the Laurel Futurity, and they thought the horse deserved a rest after a grueling 2-year-old campaign in which he had won six of eight races. But Delp was used to criticism. That might not be the way they did things in Kentucky, but it was the Bud Delp way.
In the Heritage Stakes, Bid came from behind; Delp wanted to see whether the colt could stalk the leaders from just off the pace and then make his move around the final turn, when the leaders tired. Sure enough, he was seven lengths off the lead through the first turn and into the backstretch before he got tired of watching the horses in front of him.
After half a mile, he made his move; heading into the final turn, he passed three other horses with ease and was suddenly astride Terrific Son, who had just taken the lead from a tiring Breezing On. Bid looked Terrific Son in the eye, and the other colt acquiesced. Bid bounded to a one-length lead at the three-eighths pole, putting daylight between himself and Sun Watcher, the second-place finisher. Terrific Son finished third.
Delp and Harry Meyerhoff admitted that this race had been only a learning lesson for Spectacular Bid. Delp had entered Bid in the Heritage Stakes only because he knew he would win, but the trainer acknowledged that the horse needed a break. “If there had been anybody in there hard, we might have left him at the stall in Maryland,” he said.
Spectacular Bid was showing some maturity. He had shown that he could take the lead or come back from last place; he could lurk behind the leaders and still win. What would it take to beat him, besides running on a sloppy track or trying to box him in? Yet he had shown that as long as he could find an opening, he could pass the other horses on the outside and still win, despite the longer trip around the track.
Delp’s confidence in his colt was growing, and he let the press know it. “I think only an act of God will stop Spectacular Bid from winning the Triple Crown next year,” he told reporters. That was a rare statement to make about a 2-year-old colt, and the Kentucky establishment scoffed at his boasting. Going out on a limb and predicting a colt’s place in horse racing history so early in the horse’s career was risky.
Many horses have had promising 2-year-old campaigns, only to falter as 3-year-olds. In 1968, for instance, Top Knight was named 2-Year-Old Male Horse of the Year after victories in the Champagne, Hopeful, and Futurity stakes. He finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby, and his final record was 11 wins in 46 races. Protagonist received the 1973 award after winning four of seven races, including the Cowdin and Champagne Stakes and the Laurel Futurity. But he lost his first two races as a 3-year-old, finishing last in the Gotham Stakes, and he did not race in the Kentucky Derby. His final record: four wins in 10 starts.
So far, though, Spectacular Bid showed nothing but promise. He had won his last five races, all major stakes, on five different tracks. In fact, his nine starts had been on eight different tracks. “Not too many two-year-olds do that,” wrote Bob Maisel of the Baltimore Sun. “He definitely does not have to carry his racetrack around with him. Put him out there in good condition, and he does his job.”
Bud Delp, Spectacular Bid’s trainer, was unhappy when he returned home to Maryland for the 56th Laurel Futurity on October 28. The track conditions at Laurel leading up to the race were “cuppy,” which meant that the racing surface was dry and loose, tending to break away under a horse’s hooves. This kind of surface can make a horse slip, risking injury, or it can cause him to tire as he fights through the sandy surface to gain traction.
Delp and LeRoy Jolley, General Assembly’s trainer, threatened to pull their horses from the race unless track officials did something about the conditions. “This isn’t a racetrack,” Delp said. “I don’t know what it is, but it ain’t no racetrack. And if they don’t do something about it, we’re not running. It’s as simple as that.”
Track officials listened. Days before the race, Laurel staffers scraped and firmed the track until he and Jolley were satisfied. As evidence of the improvement, Bid ran a half mile in 47 1/5 seconds.
The other change was to the finish line. Track officials erected a second finish line to account for the race’s extra sixteenth of a mile over the mile oval. Delp had jockey Ron Franklin ride several mounts that day to get accustomed to the second wire. He did not want inexperience to ruin this race.
People questioned Delp’s decision to put the young Franklin back on Bid (Jorge Velasquez had ridden Bid in his last two races). Before the race, Delp advised him, “I’m not going to tell you how to ride this horse because nobody ever knows what’s going to happen in a race. You know the horse and I don’t want you tied down by orders. But if you find yourself in a position settling into the stretch run, ride him out. Keep him driving because he loves to run, and I want these people to see how much horse he really is.”
Franklin responded with a superb ride, keeping Bid at the front of a slow pace and leaving him with enough stamina to finish strong. Bid held a half-length lead over Clever Trick after the first quarter mile and widened that lead to two lengths after a half mile.
When General Assembly made his move on the far turn, coming to within a head of Bid, Franklin waited; then, when it seemed as if General Assembly was going to catch Bid, he loosened Bid’s reins and used the whip, hitting him ten times. Bid had never been hit like that before, and he took off like a bullet, his powerful strides lengthening. The other horses seemed to stand in place.
Bid turned the race into a rout, crossing the finish line 8 1/2 lengths ahead of General Assembly and 20 1/2 lengths in front of third-place Clever Trick. He broke the track record, set by a 4-year-old in 1972, by nearly a full second. He had run his final quarter of a mile in 24 1/5 and the last sixteenth of a mile in 6 1/5 seconds—an astounding time for the end of a race, when the horses’ legs are rubbery and they are breathing heavily.
Instead, Bid came back to the barn dancing and playing, as if he had just gone out for a morning breeze. Tim the Tiger finished in last place, twenty-four lengths behind Bid.
“I got within a head at the top of the lane,” said Steve Cauthen, General Assembly’s jockey. “I thought I had him because I felt like I had a lot of horse left. But [Bid] just took off. Man, [Franklin’s] horse was running.”
Bid’s extra gear, coupled with Franklin’s vigorous use of the whip, put him in front by a significant margin. Franklin became the only apprentice rider ever to win the Laurel Futurity.
Delp had no problems with Franklin’s ride. “It was very cool. I mean cool. Letting General Assembly get that close to him without making a move. I don’t know that I could have been that cool.”
Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post saw something special when he looked at horses’ times for the Laurel Futurity in previous years and track conditions on race day in 1978. Had the last seven Laurel Futurities been run on the same track Bid had raced on, he would have had the fourth-fastest time, just behind Secretariat and two-fifths of a second off the best time set by Affirmed and Alydar just the year before. A similar analysis of the Champagne Stakes using the same methodology showed that Bid was faster than both Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
“The colt has all the necessary potential to be a Kentucky Derby winner, a Triple Crown winner,” Beyer concluded. Someone finally agreed with Delp about the horse’s potential.
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.