October 4, 1980 – Spectacular Bid Retires

Seven other challengers faced Spectacular Bid in the 1980 Jockey Club Gold Cup, including turf great John Henry, Temperence Hill, and Bid’s old foe Instrument Landing. Bid appeared ready to take the Gold Cup denied him the previous year by his rival Affirmed. If he did that, the surpassing of Affirmed would be complete. However, on the morning of the Gold Cup, bad luck reared its head.

Trainer Bud Delp and veterinarian Alex Harthill discovered something troubling.

Spectacular Bid was hurt.

The Best-Kept Secret in Horse Racing

For two years, Delp had been keeping a secret from horse racing fans: Bid had a bad foot. Throughout his 2-year-old campaign, he had suffered from a swollen left ankle. They had watched the ankle closely after every race, checking for any heat that would signify something more serious. But it was always cool to the touch, and Bid never came up lame during his three-year-old campaign.

The morning after Bid had won the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on January 5, 1980, Delp noticed that the horse’s left ankle was swollen again. Delp had the ankle X-rayed with a portable X-ray machine, and the images came back negative. With a little rest and treatment, the swelling subsided, and he won the San Fernando Stakes two weeks later.

In August, Dr. Harthill took X-rays with a more sophisticated machine at the Delaware Veterinary Clinic and found a sliver of bone separated from the bottom of the inside sesamoid in the left foreleg. While not serious, it was something they needed to monitor, and Delp occasionally touched the leg and flexed the muscles in that area to see whether Bid experienced any pain.

The day before the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Delp gave Bid a tough workout, and the ankle swelled again. Since this had happened before, Delp was not overly concerned, but he still checked for heat and tenderness. There was none. Dr. Harthill took new X-rays and found a new chip in the sesamoid region. Although Bid could still race, the situation was becoming more complicated. There was a greater risk of further injury with this second chip.

Controversy over a foot

Then the whole situation became messy. Rumors were flying around the barns that Harthill was with Delp, which always meant that something interesting was happening. The morning of the Gold Cup, Delp had Bid gallop a little. He then put Bid’s legs in ice to tighten the tendons and reduce any swelling.

At 9 a.m., Dr. Manuel Gilman, the NYRA veterinarian, came by to examine Bid as part of the pre-race routine. Bid’s legs were in a tub of ice, and Delp refused to take them out, so there would be no examination.

Gilman left but promised to return in an hour to complete the exam. Once Gilman left, Delp left instructions that if he was not there when the vet returned, the only thing Gilman could do was examine was the identification tattoo inside Bid’s lower lip.

When Gilman came back, Bid was no longer in the tub. His left leg was not bandaged, but the right one was. Gilman asked groom Mo Hall to remove the bandage so he could examine the leg; Hall refused. Gilman demanded to speak to Delp, who told Gilman via phone that they would remove the bandages, but he was not to touch the horse, flex the muscles, or take Bid from the stall.

Gilman left again, angry. “I’ll go to the stewards and tell them that I tried to do my job twice and was refused. After that, I don’t know what will happen,” he said.

The stewards confirmed that Bid needed a proper examination before he could run in the Gold Cup. Later that day, when Gilman examined the latest X-rays of Bid’s ankle, he saw the bone chips. That made a jog almost mandatory, and when Gilman asked to see the horse jog, he was denied because Bid had just eaten, and jogging after eating can cause colic.

Bid is Hurt

A steward warned Delp that Bid risked being scratched for failure to cooperate with the NYRA veterinarian’s examination. Delp promised a jog for Gilman when he returned to the barn at 4 p.m. that afternoon, only two hours before post time. When Delp arrived shortly before four, he conducted his regular exam of the left foreleg and flexed it.

Bid winced.

That was all Delp needed to see. He took the Meyerhoffs into the tack room and recommended that Bid be scratched—and retired. The Meyerhoffs agreed. “He was 98% perfect, but you don’t take chances with a $22 million horse,” Delp said. “I’m not going to send him out on the racetrack when he’s not 100 percent. It’s as simple as that.”

At 4:00, when the NYRA chairman and president showed up at Delp’s barn to talk about his refusal to let Gilman conduct his examination, they were told that Spectacular Bid had been scratched and was retired. “So the era ended when a band of Marylanders refused to back down to New York racing,” wrote Dale Austin of the Baltimore Sun. “Both sides are probably glad it has come to an end.”

Marshall Cassidy, the track announcer, told the crowd of 24,035 that Bid had been scratched, and the spectators, unaware of the drama that had been unfolding for hours, responded with boos.

In Bid’s absence, 1980 Belmont Stakes winner Temperence Hill cemented his chances of capturing 3-Year-Old Male Championship honors, winning the race by 5 1/2 lengths over the legendary turf horse John Henry. “I do know one thing,” said Joe Cantey, Temperence Hill’s trainer. “I’m glad Bid wasn’t in there.”