Oct. 6, 1979: Spectacular Bid Loses Jockey Club Gold Cup

Affirmed beating BidForty 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 wroteA 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.

Sept. 20, 1980 – Bid Wins in a Walkover in the Woodward

Spectacular Bid Walkover in Woodward StakesSpectacular Bid missed the Marlboro Cup when trainer Bud Delp balked at the high weights put on the horse. Up next on Bid’s agenda was the Woodward Stakes, the race he had missed the previous year because of a virus.

The challengers were dwindling, since they were probably only racing for second and third-place money. Talk started of a walkover, a one-horse race in which there were no challengers.

What a Walkover Would Mean for Spectacular Bid

“[A walkover] would symbolize in the most tangible form they know of that Spectacular Bid is truly the greatest horse of modern times,” wrote Barry Irwin of the Thoroughbred Record. Since it was not a handicap, Bid would be carrying only 126 pounds. That scared away a lot of the competition. Winter’s Tale was scratched after X-rays revealed a chip in the bone above his knee.

Only two other horses were entered—Temperance Hill, winner of the 1980 Belmont Stakes and Travers Stakes, and sprinter Dr. Patches. Owners of both horses said they would run their horses if the New York Racing Association wanted them to, but curiously, they were not asked to run. After meeting with NYRA officials, the owners of Dr. Patches and Temperance Hill scratched their horses.

This meant that Bid would run the Woodward by himself. It would be the first walkover since 1949, when Coaltown had gone to the starting gate alone at the Havre de Grace Racetrack. According to Brian Landman of the Tampa Bay Times, it was racing’s greatest gesture of respect.

No Horses = Small Purse

In hearing about the Woodward walkover, the Meyerhoffs also got a surprise announcement: Since there were no other horses in the race, officials had the option of giving the winner only half the guaranteed purse, plus the nomination fees, but not the entry money.

Spectacular Bid would get $73,000 for winning the race, but that was all. He also had to make a real effort; he couldn’t just canter around the racetrack for a mile and a quarter. The Meyerhoffs were furious with the decision and talked of racing under protest or not racing him at all.

Delp was livid. He accused NYRA officials of chasing Dr. Patches and Temperence Hill away from the race to repay him for withdrawing from the Marlboro Cup. NYRA racing secretary Lenny Hale would not say whether that was true.

“We felt like the New Yorkers got together and they decided that they were going to do this to us,” Tom Meyerhoff said. There was still some bad blood between the two camps, dating from the feud between Ron Franklin and Angel Cordero, the safety pin incident at the Belmont, and the weight assignments for the Marlboro Cup.

The Walkover Begins

In the end, Bid showed up and walked onto the track alone, a post parade of one, with boos and catcalls still lingering over Delp’s decision to withdraw from the Marlboro. “Everybody else was at the Marlboro, where were you?” one person asked. Bid was not used to the boos; he had not heard any since the Belmont Stakes. It was unfair, but New York fans have little sympathy for anyone, much less a horse.

Bid was loaded into the starting gate—alone—and when the bell clanged, he took off by himself. He needed no challengers to run a good race; all he needed was his love of running, and he ran like an animal uncaged. Jockey Bill Shoemaker had to hold him back to prevent him from wasting too much energy. He galloped the one and a quarter miles under strong restraint in an impressive 2:02 2/5—the same time in which he had finished the Kentucky Derby.

Bid earned his $73,000—half of what he would have earned if just one other horse had run. His winning streak was at 10. He remained unbeaten during 1980. Despite the bitter feelings associated with the race, Delp had always dreamed of seeing Bid in a walkover, and it finally came true.

Sept. 8, 1979: Bid Wins Marlboro Cup

Marlboro Cup program

When NYRA racing secretary Lenny Hale assigned weights for the 1979 Marlboro Cup, he assigned Affirmed, a 4-year-old, 133 pounds; Spectacular Bid, still only 3 years old, 124 pounds; and Coastal, 122 pounds. “I don’t see how [Affirmed’s trainer] Laz Barrera can complain about it, but he will,” Hale said.

He was right. Barrera was furious. “It’s the Wolfsons’ horse, and they can do with him what they want,” he said. “But if he were my horse I would not run him.”

The owners agreed, and the next day, Barrera withdrew Affirmed from the Marlboro Cup, citing unfair handicapping weights.

Bud Delp, Spectacular Bid’s trainer, was disappointed that Bid would not be running against the best. “Laz is smart, but it’s bad for the sport,” he said. “This would have been the Race of the Century. I’ve never seen a field of this caliber. It’s still the Race of the Decade.”

With Affirmed absent, Delp predicted that champion sprinter Star de Naskra would be his stiffest competition, and he threw a barb at General Assembly. “General Assembly won’t win it. That’s one horse I know I’m going to beat. I’ve beaten him five times. He keeps coming back for more.”

Boos for Bid at the Marlboro

The morning of the Marlboro broke hot and steamy, with an expected temperature of 84 degrees. Wearing a red Marlboro blazer, Delp was sweating and wiping his face with a handkerchief as he heard catcalls coming from the New Yorkers: “Hey! Watch out for those safety pins!” and “Got all those pins out?” Delp ignored them, focusing instead on his prized Thoroughbred. He believed no accident would befall Bid today, and the outcome would be no accident either.

Bid was his usual antsy, rank self before the race, skipping and hopping his way to the starting gate. But he went in the gate smoothly. The bell clanged, the gates sprang open, and they were off.

The gray colt started well and settled into third place, just behind front-runners Star de Naskra and General Assembly, with Coastal and Text not far behind. The pace was agonizingly slow; at the half-mile mark, jockey Bill Shoemaker had seen enough and let a notch out of Bid’s reins.

Bid responded and passed the two leaders, but Text made a move as well, and he and General Assembly held on. Text was just a neck behind Bid, and General Assembly was a neck behind Text. Delp, who had no binoculars, asked owner Harry Meyerhoff what was going on. Harry confirmed that Bid had just taken the lead, and Delp said, “He’ll win.” When the time for the half mile was posted (a snail-like 47 2/5 seconds), he boasted, “This race is history.”

As the pack rounded the turn for home, Bid extended his lead to 1 1/2 lengths, and the field was chasing him futilely. “Everybody was whipping and driving and I really hadn’t asked my horse to run,” Shoemaker said. When he did ask Bid to run, the horse responded, extending his lead down the homestretch with his effortless stride, winning by 5 lengths over General Assembly in what seemed like an exhibition.

The time was 1:46 3/5, just a second behind Secretariat’s track record. Coastal was never in contention. He tried to mimic his Belmont finish with a ride along the rail but finished third, 1 1/2  lengths behind General Assembly.


The crowd roared its approval. It was sweet revenge for Bid, who had defeated Coastal by 6 1/2 lengths at the same track where he had lost in the Belmont Stakes. “[Bid] established without a doubt his supremacy over the other members of his generation,” wrote Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post. “And today’s race certainly verified Delp’s insistence that the Belmont was not a true performance by his horse.”

Barrera felt justified in his decision. “[Spectacular Bid] showed yesterday that he should have won the Triple Crown,” he said on Sunday. “He wins the Marlboro in 1:46 3/5 with Shoemaker hardly using the whip. If Affirmed is in the race and Shoe uses the whip, Spectacular Bid goes in 1:46. Then Affirmed has to run his eyeballs out with 133 pounds to win in 1:45 and change. It is asking too much. He would be knocked out for the rest of the year.”

Without actually saying it, Barrera implied that Affirmed would have lost to Bid.

Despite Bid’s win, Harry Meyerhoff expressed his disappointment at Affirmed’s absence. “Our horse ran a great race, and we’re sorry we didn’t meet [Affirmed],” he said.