October 19, 1978: Bid Grabs the Young America Stakes

Substitute jockey Jorge Velasquez was up on Spectacular Bid for the colt’s first race around two turns, the Young America Stakes at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., on the evening of October 19. Bid was the bettor’s favorite at 3 to 10 odds, but he almost blew it. Or, rather, Velasquez almost did.

A Bumpy Start

At the start, the Canadian gelding Port Ebony swerved toward the outside and ran into several horses, including Bid. The collision caused Bid to veer off course, slow down, and fall back to seventh place, boxed in behind a wall of horses coming around the first turn.

He regained his form, moving between horses in the first turn until he reached third place. Down the backstretch, he continued to make a strong move, challenging the leader, Make a Mess. But Velasquez held Bid back, allowing Make a Mess to hang around and battle for the lead. Again, Bid fought against the reins, wanting the lead for himself.

For three-quarters of a mile, the two ran as one, with Bid coming at Make a Mess multiple times until the latter tired. Then, with one furlong left, Strike Your Colors, the horse that had beaten Bid in the Tyro, inched ahead. Another horse named Instrument Landing also surged toward the leaders, and in the final 500 feet, it was a three-horse race. The crowd of 18,219 leaped to their feet as the three horses raced neck and neck.

A Photo Finish

Velasquez threw everything into his mount—using the whip liberally— as Bid tried to inch ahead in the final yards. Digging his hooves into the dirt, reaching as far as he could with each stride, and breathing heavily, he could not find that extra gear and pull away. Perhaps the battle with Make a Mess had tired him. Maybe Strike Your Colors and Instrument Landing were too fresh. It was a photo finish.

The crowd waited for the stewards to examine the photo and post the winner. The horses walked around the oval, cooling down and blowing hard after such a heated battle, as the jockeys continually checked the scoreboard.

Velasquez’s urging had worked: the finish-line photo showed Spectacular Bid winning by a neck over Strike Your Colors, who edged out Instrument Landing by a head for second. For all his troubles—being boxed in, having to go around several horses, slowing down, and going after Make a Mess numerous times—he finished the mile-and-one-sixteenth race in 1:431/5, just one second off the track record.

The Aftermath

Trainer Bud Delp was not happy with Velasquez’s performance. “Going up the backside, the colt wanted the lead real bad,” said an irritated Delp, who had wanted another runaway win in front of the New York crowd. “Velasquez reached down and took a hold on him. So the colt relaxed and stayed with the horse alongside him. That made it a hard race.” If it sounded like Delp was criticizing Velasquez instead of Bid, he was.

And with that, young Ron Franklin was back on Bid as jockey.

October 18, 1979: Bid Starts a New Streak at the Meadowlands

Bid captures Meadowlands Stakes

Bid lengthens his lead on the field in the 1979 Meadowlands Cup. Photo © Copyright Jim Raftery.

Trainer Bud Delp entered Spectacular Bid in the Meadowlands Cup during the fall of 1979. To ensure that Bid would enter, officials at the Meadowlands had sweetened the pot, raising the purse from $250,000 to $350,000.

Twenty-two other horses were nominated, including Affirmed, but Laz Barrera decided not to run him. Instead, he sent his latest sensation, Valdez, to the Meadowlands. Valdez, once considered a Triple Crown contender, had almost died from a viral infection in the spring but had recently beaten Kentucky Derby front-runner Shamgo by 2 3/4 lengths to win the Swaps Stakes in Inglewood, California. It was his third victory in a row and his fifth in six starts. Bid drew the rail for the race—not where Delp wanted him to be.

Delp was paying no attention to the race but instead, was still talking about a rematch between Bid and Affirmed. “I think we deserve another shot,” he said. “Whatever it takes to get these two horses together again, I’d like to see it happen. They could meet next month.” Barrera said, “I’d have to think about it. After tonight, it might not be necessary,” implying that Valdez might spoil the party.

Spectacular Bid Bides his time in the Meadowlands

October 18 was a cool night at the Meadowlands—a perfect night for racing. Going off as the 1 to 9 favorite, Bid got off to his usual slow start, giving the lead to Text, ridden by Angel Cordero. Text held the lead for the first quarter mile, with Valdez second. At the half-mile pole, Text and Valdez switched places, with Bid biding his time in third place.

Jockey Bill Shoemaker urged his mount on in the backstretch, and Bid, taking his time, slowly gained ground on the leaders. As they entered the far turn, Bid took off, as if he had been waiting for the right moment. He passed Valdez and Text, and although Valdez fought back, matching Bid stride for stride around the turn, Bid drew away in the homestretch, widening his lead with his precision strides.

He finished three lengths ahead of a fast-closing Smarten, who nosed out Valdez for second. He had covered the mile and a quarter in 2:01 1/5, breaking the old track record by 2/5 of a second. Another track record broken.

Oct. 8, 1978: Bid Beats Them All in Champagne Stakes

With Spectacular Bid’s win at the World’s  Playground Stakes in September 1978, the competition for  the Eclipse Award championship became more complicated. The winner might be determined in the Champagne Stakes, which was held at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York—a track where Delp had entered only 15 horses in his career and had won just twice.

General Assembly, a son of Secretariat, would be there, as would Calumet Farm’s Tim the Tiger, who had won his first five races. Horse racing experts had expected these two to battle it out for Champion 2-Year-Old Male, but Bid’s showing in the World’s Playground brought a new dimension to the race.

Switching Jockeys

Determined to have Bid win the Champagne Stakes, Delp told young jockey Ron Franklin that he was being replaced by veteran jockey Jorge Velasquez. “Ronnie’s only ridden for about seven months,” Delp explained to the press, “and he’s not familiar with this big track. I picked out Jorge because he’s an old pro. I want no mistakes. Ronnie understands. He wants the best for the horse.” Franklin’s poor performance in the Dover Stakes was still in the back of his mind.

Spectacular Bid was bettors’ third choice behind General Assembly and Tim the Tiger. He started the race from the inside number 1 post—never a good position for a horse because of the possibility of getting boxed in along the rail by the other horses, a situation Bid had encountered in the Dover Stakes. Bid left the post in his usual plodding manner, while the quick-moving Breezing On went straight to the front to set the first-quarter pace in a moderate 23 1/5 seconds.

Three furlongs into the race, Velasquez recognized the slower pace and chirped into Bid’s ear. Instead of moving on his own, as he usually did, the gray colt responded like lightning. With his light, seemingly effortless gait, he quickly put real estate behind him, passing several horses and moving into second place. He then pulled up alongside Breezing On and eyed the front-running colt.

Breezing On tried to do the same, but he could not look Bid in the eye. Discouraged and intimidated, Breezing On dropped back immediately while Bid surged to the front, traveling along the rail. At the half-mile pole, he held a one-length lead over General Assembly, with Breezing On third and Tim the Tiger fourth. General Assembly tried to challenge him, but Bid kicked it into a higher gear on the homestretch, with some urging by Velasquez. Tim the Tiger was inexplicably fading, and fading fast.

Bid stretched his lead to four lengths before Velasquez tightened the reins, trying with all his might to slow him down. Bid was ahead by two and three-quarters lengths when he hit the finish line. The time for the mile-long race was a fast 1:344/5, only two-fifths of a second slower than the stakes record set by the great Seattle Slew in 1976. If Velasquez had let him race through the finish line, Bid could have beaten that record. General Assembly finished second, and Crest of the Wave was third. Tim the Tiger was a well-beaten fourth, nine lengths back.

A ‘Higher Gear’

What made the difference in this race was the discovery of a new, higher gear—something Bid would continue to use throughout his career. According to writer William Nack, “He had two or three different gears. Bid could move in a race, and then be steadied and then move again. He was one of those horses.” Just when he seemed to be out of it, or when he seemed to tire, or when he faced a challenger, he would find that faster pace and accelerate ahead of any competition.

Russ Harris of the Thoroughbred Record did not put much stock in comparing records from different years, which involved different surface conditions, different equipment, and different competition. Instead, he looked at the other mile-long event on the program that day, which took place under the same conditions and on the same track. In that race, a four-year-old mare won in 1:381/5. Bid’s time was more than three seconds faster than that of a horse two years older than he was.

“He’s a nice horse,” Velasquez said. “He didn’t break too sharp, but he still made it by what, three lengths? We got to the eighth pole, and nobody was coming. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hope he gets [to the Triple Crown races].”

When asked whether he was disappointed about losing the mount on Bid, Franklin said he took things as they came and was not upset about it. “I haven’t been riding for very long,” he admitted. “I guess my time will come later when I can ride up here. Maybe next year.”