There has been a great deal written recently about American Pharoah’s place among the all-time greats. For what he accomplished this year, and last year, I feel he elevated himself into the realm of immortals, not only based on his historic accomplishments on the racetrack, but what he meant to the entire sport and racing fans all over the world, on and off the racetrack.
I thought following this past holiday weekend, when many of tomorrow’s stars were on display at Churchill Downs and Aqueduct, I would re-address and expand a seven-year-old column about the greatest, most accomplished racehorse I ever saw, based in great part on the ability to sustain that greatness over a three-year-period.
As you will read, Spectacular Bid’s feats were nothing short of awe inspiring and will never be equaled, once again based on the ability to sustain those feats at the highest level.
The 1970s has long been considered the golden age of racing, not only because we had three Triple Crown winners, but because we had great 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds who were able to perpetuate that greatness as 4-year-olds; horses like Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Spectacular Bid, not to mention the amazing Forego, whose Herculean feats began late in his 3-year-old campaign and extended into his 7-year-old campaign. And that is the decade when we had two legendary horses at 2 and 3, Secretariat and Ruffian.
People are always asking me who is the greatest horse I have ever seen. I tell them that in my opinion, Secretariat and Damascus had the most incredible 3-year-old campaigns (I now have to include American Pharoah), and Dr. Fager, in 1968, was the greatest, most awe-inspiring horse who ever set foot on an American racetrack. But over the course of an entire career, at ages 2, 3, and 4, Spectacular Bid was the greatest horse I have ever seen.
There have been better looking horses than The Bid. There have been better moving horses, and better bred horses. But he had one quality that separated him from the others – he could do everything. He was as close to the perfect racing machine as any horse in my time.
He won grade I stakes on the lead and he won coming from 10 lengths back. He ran seven furlongs in a near-world-record 1:20 flat and 1 1/4 miles in a world-record (on dirt) 1:57 4/5, a time which has not been equaled in 35 years. He broke seven track records and equaled another, and he did it at 2, 3, and 4, at seven different tracks and at five different distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. As a 2-year-old, he won the World's Playground Stakes at Atlantic City by 15 lengths, running the seven furlongs over a dead racetrack under wraps in an astounding 1:20 4/5. He ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:45 4/5 at Hollywood Park and 1:46 1/5 at Arlington Park, both carrying 130 pounds, and 1:46 3/5 at Belmont Park, defeating older horses. He also ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:40 2/5 at Hollywood Park carrying 132 pounds.
After nailing down the 2-year-old championship with his victory in the Champagne Stakes in a near stakes-record 1:34 4/5 for the mile, The Bid hardly rested on his laurels. In fact, he hardly rested, period. His trainer, Buddy Delp, called him “The greatest horse to ever look through a bridle,” and he felt there were more worlds to conquer. Only 11 days after the Champagne, Bid won the Young America at the Meadowlands, then came back only nine days after that and shattered the track record in the Laurel Futurity, beating future record-breaking Travers winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up General Assembly by 8 1/2 lengths, with Clever Trick another 12 lengths back in third. He was back 13 days later, winning the Heritage Stakes at Keystone by six lengths under wraps.
Spectacular Bid won at 15 different racetracks in nine different states, and carried 130 pounds or more to victory five times. To demonstrate his dominance, and the respect the public had for him, he was sent off at odds of 1-20, that's 1-20, an unheard of eight times, and 1-10 six times. Beginning with the World's Playground, he won 24 of 26 starts, rattling off 12-race and 10-race winning streaks, while facing such classy grade I winners as Flying Paster, General Assembly, Coastal, Glorious Song, Cox's Ridge, and Golden Act, as well as Relaunch and Smarten. His only two defeats came at 1 1/2 miles, when he stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont, almost losing his foot after a bad infection set in, and in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, when he was beaten by the older horse, Hall of Famer Affirmed, after being forced to miss his prep in the Woodward Stakes due to a virus. In all, he won 26 of his 30 career starts. In both his defeats early in his career, he had troubled trips.
And he accomplished all this being ridden as a 3-year-old by a little known and unaccomplished rider named Ronnie Franklin who was having cocaine problems at the time and quickly vanished from the racetrack. Many blamed Bid’s defeat in the Belmont Stakes on Franklin’s poorly judged ride, even with the safety pin incident, which turned out to be far more serious than everyone thought.
Bid also suffered from a nagging sesamoid problem that was present throughout his undefeated 4-year-old campaign. Delp just wanted to get him to the Jockey Club Gold Cup to close out his career and was furious when he was assigned a staggering 136 pounds for the Marlboro Cup. Delp decided to scratch Bid and wait for the Woodward Stakes, which wound up being run in a walkover. Delp told Bill Shoemaker to just let him canter around the track no matter how long it took him so he could get one more race in him, concluding his career in the Gold Cup. But Shoemaker, despite never fully asking him to run at any point, still allowed Bid to close each of his final two quarters in a mind-boggling :24 1/5. Horses rarely come home that fast in a normal race, never mind running against no one. By running his mile and a quarter in 2:02 2/5, faster than previous Woodward winners Buckpasser, Kelso (in 1962), and Sword Dancer, Bid re-aggravated his sesamoid injury, which forced his retirement.
So much for statistics. As incredible as they are, Spectacular Bid went far beyond statistics. As his coat lightened as a 4-year-old, he was like a ghostly figure hurtling down one stretch after another in isolated splendor. With his head held high and his powerful legs stretching across the racing universe, he not only went undefeated in nine starts in 1980, there was never a horse in front of him at the eighth pole.
My wife Joan and I have always felt a close kinship with The Bid. He was a part of our early life together, and his passing in 2003 unleashed a flood of memories.
In 1979, a week before Joan started working as public relations coordinator for the New York Racing Association, we were hired by a weekly racing publication to photograph the Preakness Stakes. One of the unforgettable images was The Bid coming off the track on Preakness morning, bucking and lashing back with his hind legs, with his groom, holding on for dear life, telling the horse, “Damn, you're as crazy as the boss,” in reference to the outspoken, volatile Buddy Delp. Another was The Bid walking the shed later that morning, stopping in front of Davona Dale’s stall. The great Calumet filly had just won the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes the day before, and each time Bid walked by her stall she would pin her ears back to her shoulder and eyeball him. And each time, Bid would stop right in front of her stall, pick his head up and stare right back at her, flashing the whites of his eyes.
For the Preakness, Joan was stationed on the rail, while I was up in the photographer’s stand shooting from the inside. It was quite a sight standing right over The Bid as he crossed the finish line 5 1/2 lengths in front, missing Canonero’s (then official) track record by a fifth of a second.
The following year, Joan and I watched from her Belmont Park office overlooking the finish line, as The Bid concluded his remarkable career with the first walkover in 31 years. Eight days later, we were married.
In 1998, we went to visit The Bid at Milfer Farm in Unadilla, N.Y., along with our then 14-year-old daughter, Mandy, who had visited him as a baby at Claiborne Farm. I wanted to make sure she saw the "greatest horse to ever look through a bridle," at least once in her life and know just what a great horse she was looking at. The Bid, now 22 and milky white, was led out of his stall and proceeded to nuzzle up against my daughter. He no longer was among the elite roster of stallions, as he had been when he was retired to Claiborne Farm with such great promise. And he no longer bore even the slightest resemblance to that charcoal gray 3-year-old with the star on his forehead. But he still held his head high with pride, and when he looked at you, that fire and spirit of his youth still shone through. He was Spectacular Bid, and he still knew it. And you knew it.
Milfer Farm owner, Dr. Jon Davis, told us at the time, "I still get goose bumps standing next to him." His devoted groom, Tim Stewart, added, "All you have to do is be around him to know he's something special."
The last image I have of The Bid is of him standing outside his barn, his white mane blowing in the breeze, with my daughter standing alongside, patting him on his neck. That moment rekindled memories of a very special time, not only for me and my wife, but for Thoroughbred racing.
Affirmed died in 2001, then Seattle Slew in 2002, and The Bid in 2003. Just like that, they were all gone, and with them the end of the golden era. We will never see the likes of Spectacular Bid again. But at least I have a photo album I can open and show my daughter. And I can tell her, “You remember these pictures of you with this magnificent white horse named Spectacular Bid? Well, his trainer once called him the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle. It was quite an outrageous comment at the time. But, you know what? He just may have been right.”