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.