40 Years Ago: Spectacular Bid wins Kentucky Derby

Photo by Jerry Cooke

There was no disqualification, no controversy in the 1979 Kentucky Derby.

Spectacular Bid went for the lead around the far turn, looked his rival Flying Paster in the eye, and went on to a 2 3/4 length victory in the 105th Kentucky Derby.

It was a cold, windy day at Churchill Downs as the horses went into the starting gate. Bid got out as he usually did—slow and clumsy.

Jockey Ron Franklin let most of the horses go by him, then saw the horses form a wall in front of him as they raced by the finish line for the first time and headed for the clubhouse turn. But Franklin moved Bid to the outside from his number three position, despite losing valuable ground, and settled into seventh place.

By the half-mile mark, General Assembly and Shamgo were the leaders, setting a slow pace. They were five lengths in front of the West’s best bet, Flying Paster, who seemed to have some difficulty managing the sandy surface. Spectacular Bid seemed to be holding his own.

About halfway down the backstretch, Franklin whispered, “It’s time, Big Daddy!” into Bid’s ear, and Bid slowly gained ground, still on the outside and still at his own rate of speed. He finally settled alongside Flying Paster, who was busy making his own move on a tiring Shamgo.

The two raced as one hitting the far turn, chasing General Assembly, who held on to the lead and seemed to have conserved his energy based on the slow initial fractions. The Paster was on the inside, Bid on the outside.

The crowd roared as they saw the rivalry develop between Bid and Flying Paster. These two colts were the ones who were supposed to battle it out for the Kentucky Derby, East vs. West, neck and neck, gunning for the lead. It was a setup for a perfect ending.

And in a second, it was over. Bid moved past The Paster and in front of General Assembly, as Franklin hit the colt entering the homestretch. “My horse looked Paster in the eye, and the other horse spit the bit right out,” Franklin said, meaning Flying Paster gave up; Don Pierce, Flying Paster’s jockey, felt the reins slacken in his hands and knew that it was over.

As the pack entered the homestretch, Franklin whipped Bid five times to urge him on, and with each stride Bid lengthened his lead over General Assembly. Flying Paster dropped back, and Golden Act took his place with a furious closing kick, coming from next-to-last place.

But Bid was not to be denied; when he crossed the finish line, the margin of victory was two and three-quarter lengths. General Assembly was second, and Golden Act was third, three lengths behind General Assembly. Flying Paster finished fifth, ten lengths behind. The final time was 2:02 2/5—not a fast Derby, but considering the track conditions, it was fast enough.

Spectacular Bid, the horse bought for $37,000 by three Marylanders and trained by a small-time horse claimer, had just won the most prestigious horse race in North America.

April 26, 1979 – Spectacular Bid Waltzes in Blue Grass

Forty years ago today, Spectacular Bid wowed the Keeneland crowd in the Blue Grass Stakes, cruising to a 7-length win over Lot o’Gold.

Overcast skies threatened rain that day. As had been the case in several races that year, Bid’s workouts had scared away most horses. By post time, only three other horses dared to challenge him: Lot o’ Gold, a horse Bid had soundly defeated three times already, Bishop’s Choice, another colt he had beaten, and a horse named Pianist.

The horses walked through the post parade and into the starting gate, and when the bell clanged and the gates opened, all four leaped out together.

The pack went four wide around the clubhouse turn, with Bid, in the number four position, on the outside. Although Franklin urged Bid on from the start, Bid did not respond. Once they reached the backstretch, Bid, by way of his outside position, was last.

On the backstretch, Pianist held the lead, and Lot o’ Gold made a move on the inside to challenge. Finally, Bid decided it was time to run and made a move for the leaders on the outside. For a moment, Lot o’ Gold held the lead by a neck.

Then Franklin whipped Bid twice, and that was all the gray colt needed. Routinely, almost effortlessly, he responded, passing Lot o’ Gold, increasing his lead to two lengths. Seeing as no one was challenging him, he loafed out of the far turn and into the homestretch—so much that Franklin had to hit him with the whip a few times again.

The final margin of victory was 7 lengths; the time for the 1 1/8-mile race was 1:50, two seconds slower than the time for the Flamingo Stakes. He took 13 4/5 seconds to cover the last furlong when a good training time for a furlong is 12 seconds. He had no competition, but spectators began to wonder, “What’s wrong with Spectacular Bid?”

He would show them two weeks later that nothing was wrong.