Spectacular Bid’s Strub: 40 Years Later

On February 3, 1980, Spectacular Bid stunned the horse racing world by winning the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita in 1:57 4/5, obliterating the world record set 30 years earlier by the great Noor and equaled by Quack in 1972.

Forty years later, the record still stands.

Here’s how good that 1:57 4/5 is:

  • Secretariat holds the Kentucky Derby record and Churchill Downs track record for the same distance at 1:59 2/5 – 1 3/5 seconds slower than Bid’s time. Given the rough calculation that 1 length equals 1/5 of a second, Spectacular Bid would have beaten Secretariat by eight lengths that day.
  • The performance of Flying Paster, who finished 3 1/4 lengths behind Spectacular Bid that day, would have set a track record.
  • Bid’s record is the sixth-oldest North American record still standing. Two of the older records (Kelso at 2 miles, Swaps at 1 5/8 miles) are for longer distances, which are rarely run anymore.
  • According to ESPN.com, only 11 horses have won 1 1/4-mile stakes races in 1:58 3/5 or faster since 1946. Only one has been within the last 14 years – the 1991 Suburban won by In Excess (whose time was still 2/5 of a second slower than Bid’s).

That’s not good. That’s spectacular.

January 5, 1980: Spectacular Bid Starts a Streak in the Malibu

In his first race of 1980, the Malibu Stakes on January 5, Bid faced only four other horses in the short, seven-furlong race. Race day was warm and sunny—typical of Southern California in winter.

Bid was assigned 126 pounds, the heaviest in the field, and seemed ready to resume his racing career, pawing at the ground in the paddock before the race. Flying Paster, eager to get another shot at Bid, was carrying 123 pounds. Bettors sent Bid off as the 3 to 10 favorite.

Spectacular Bid broke from the gate in his usual lumbering style. He let How Rewarding pass him and was last entering the clubhouse turn, but not too far off the leader, Rosie’s Seville. Flying Paster broke well and was in third place before giving it up to How Rewarding, who, after a slow start, was making a mad dash to the front and battling Rosie’s Seville for the lead. Bid was still in last place.

Jockey Bill Shoemaker inched Bid up between horses and into fourth place, just behind Flying Paster. When the Paster made his move on the inside around the far turn, Bid saw his rival and went with him. Throughout the turn, it was a four-horse race, with Rosie’s Seville still hanging on and Known Presence making a move.

Once they entered the homestretch, though, Spectacular Bid took over, even though he had gone around the turn four horses wide, just as he had done in the past with Franklin. He bolted into the lead as if his feet were not even leaving the ground, almost like a trotter.

Bid extended his lead to three lengths, then four, as Shoemaker hand-rode him almost the whole way, using the whip only once. In fact, Shoemaker had to slow Bid down to conserve the horse’s energy.

Flying Paster beaten again

The winning margin was five lengths over poor Flying Paster, who was being whipped all the way down the stretch but could not catch Bid. Once considered Bid’s equal or even his superior, the Paster had been beaten badly yet again—this time on his home track, and with no excuses.

Bid knew he had won. He was led to the winner’s circle, got his chocolate doughnut, and heard soothing sounds of encouragement from trainer Bud Delp and exercise rider Charlie Bettis, which calmed him down after the race.

In winning the Malibu, Bid broke another track record; the winning time was three-fifths of a second faster than the old track record, set back in 1954, and just one-fifth of a second off the world record set in 1972. By comparison, Affirmed had finished third in the Malibu in 1979.

If Shoemaker had let Bid loose all the way to the finish line, he could have set a world record for the distance. “He had his running shoes on,” Shoemaker said. “When we straightened out in the stretch, I hit him once, and he took off and left the others.”

Dr. Alex Harthill examined Bid after the race and told Delp and Bettis that Bid’s heartbeat was so slow, “it was like he’d been in his stall all day.”

It was the start of an undefeated season for Spectacular Bid, who would win all nine races he started that year.

Nov. 11, 1978 – Spectacular Bid Wins Heritage Stakes in Philly

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.”