By Brian Zipse, Zipse At The Track
I recently rated Spectacular Bid as the fourth best race horse ever to step on an American track. Fact be told, I may have underestimated him. Yes, the Bid was that good. Spectacular Bid is the greatest horse I have remembered in this series and he may be the best horse I ever remember. Buckjumps and bad rides, attempting Herculean feats, and then doing it again less than two weeks later. Safety pins, hoof infections, and carrying high weights. Stolen crowns and nagging leg issues, in the end none of it mattered. Spectacular Bid stood alone. Literally, Spectacular Bid stood alone in the Woodward Stakes starting gate. The presence of the steel gray racing god weighed so heavily on the connections of would be rivals that Spectacular Bid’s final race was a walkover. In those pre-Breeders’ Cup days there was arguably no bigger Fall race than the Woodward, yet when Winter’s Tale was found to be a little off leading up to the race, there was no other horse willing to run for 2nd money. Yes, the Bid was that good.
I was a young fan of the Bid before he ran in his first stakes race, in fact I was there to see his first try in an added money event. We drove down to the Jersey Shore that day to see a gray colt by Bold Bidder out of the Promised Land mare Spectacular, who was coming off sharp scores in a maiden and an allowance race at Pimlico. Not listed as the favorite morning line, we all were looking forward to Spectacular Bid taking the local juveniles to task. Through our racing connections, we had been told that the Maryland shipper was more than a handful and the Tyro Stakes should be little more than a formality. The sky opened up that Summer day and the Monmouth Park strip would be sloppy. This is when the term buckjumped first came into my racing vernacular. Bid, who went off as the favorite, came out of the gate very slowly and drifted wide, not seeming to know what to make of the wet track, he ’buckjumped’ his way to an almost 20 length deficit in the 5 ½ furlong sprint. He eventually regained some measure of footing and put on a solid rally. It resulted in only a non-threatening 4th. Spectacular Bid had suffered his first defeat. I went home thinking it was not a true measure of how good the Bid was, and I would eagerly await his return. A few weeks later he came back in Delaware’s Dover Stakes and once again was slow to move. Bid and his teenager rider, Ronnie Franklin, were blocked on the turn and would not be able to make up enough ground on the strong pacesetter, and finished a rallying 2nd to Strike Your Colors. He had lost his second consecutive stakes race. Spectacular Bid would not lose again anytime soon.
One of my favorite races of the incredible racing year of 1978 was the Champagne Stakes. It was for all intents and purposes the two-year-old championship. The Champagne featured General Assembly, the star of Saratoga and out of a young sire named Secretariat. Second choice was the Calumet colt Tim the Tiger who had just surprised General Assembly in the Cowdin. The entire Zipse clan was there to see the third choice though. In between his not quite ready for primetime losses in the Tyro and Dover, the Bid had returned with a vengeance. In one of the most impressive races I have ever seen a juvenile run, he had won Atlantic City’s World’s Playground by 15 lengths over the horses who had beaten him in the Tyro and Dover. Final time over a track considered on the slow side, was 1:20 4/5 for the seven furlongs. The real Bid had arrived, and his Maryland hardboot trainer, Buddy Delp decided to ditch the young Franklin in favor of the experienced jockey, Jorge Velazquez. The result of the Champagne was just what I wanted; Spectacular Bid was much the best against the big names in New York and an Eclipse Award was now in his grasp. A dull race, but a gutsy win over familiar rival Strike Your Colors immediately followed in the Young America. Delp was not happy with the ride that night by Velazquez and he would go back to his teenage whipping boy, Ronnie Franklin. It would not matter who rode him next out, as once again the Bid ran one of the greatest juvenile races ever, in winning the Laurel Futurity in track record time over rival General Assembly. No rest for the weary as Delp wanted his star to run, and he came back with a nifty score in the Heritage Stakes at 1-10. In seven remarkable weeks, Spectacular Bid had gone from a promising colt winless in two stakes, to a scintillating five-time stakes winner and champion.
Spectacular Bid’s prep races were the most impressive roll to the Kentucky Derby that I have ever seen. Noteworthy among them was the Florida Derby. In one of the worst rides a good horse ever had to endure, the Bid was checked and checked and checked some more. Franklin kept running him into horses and each time the horse regained his stride and would try again. Finally on his fifth attempt to display his superiority, Spectacular Bid swung out and won for fun. His winning margin of 4 ½ lengths in the Florida Derby almost seemed silly. He should have won by 20. As the Bid marched through Hialeah’s Flamingo and Keeneland’s Blue Grass, confidence soared. The Meyerhoff’s of Hawksworth Farm, who had purchased Bid as a yearling on the advice of Buddy Delp, were confident and the trainer himself was not afraid to pronounce the attributes of his star. Spectacular Bid was the best and Delp let people know. Heading to the Derby there were two questions for Team Bid. After the Florida Derby it was assumed Delp would dump Franklin again, but instead he stuck with him. Pundits wondered how Franklin would handle the Derby pressures. The other question came in the form of a Californian son of Gummo, named Flying Paster. The West Coast hotshot had compiled quite a record and was coming into the Derby on a roll. These questions would soon be dismissed though, as there proved little that could slow down a horse as great as Spectacular Bid.
The Triple Crown was proceeding as planned. An easy win in the Kentucky Derby was followed by an easier win in the Preakness. Spectacular Bid had proven to be far superior to his peers. He had now won 12 straight stakes races with amazing flare. America braced itself for the third Triple Crown winner in three years. But then the cruel hands of fate would step in and stab my hero with a seemingly innocuous weapon. A safety pin used to secure the bandages designed to protect the horse, got loose and punctured his hoof. This would lead to a sore Bid being ridden nervously by the young Franklin. He had little left in the stretch and sadly the Bid only finished a competitive 3rd on courage alone. Winner that day was a classy, late-developing colt named Coastal, but the Belmont was all about Spectacular Bid, a safety pin, and immortality lost. I was heartbroken. Meanwhile the Bid would have to fight off a serious infection caused by the puncture. Part of his hoof was cut away and his health would rebound. Would not winning the Triple Crown be a black mark on the Bid’s career? Unfortunately, yes. Those who saw Spectacular Bid knew his greatness, but losing the Triple Crown would forever leave him with the stigma of what might have been. Great - yes, Triple Crown winner - no. It is unfortunate.
His return to the races, marked a return to greatness. Sacrificial lambs ran against him a few months later in an allowance race at Delaware Park. The Bid won by 17 lengths, clearly demonstrating his full recovery from his safety pin caused infection. The Delaware win marked the first ride by the great Willie Shoemaker. The Shoe would ride him for the rest of the career. Franklin was struggling with alcohol and substance abuse and would never again ride the Bid. Next was the Marlboro Cup and Spectacular Bid treated the top notch field, including his Belmont Stakes vanquisher, Coastal with absolute disdain. I cheered loudly as the Bid skipped away from his rivals that day, wishing there had been one more entrant. A chestnut horse named Affirmed. The previous year’s Triple Crown champion had not entered the Marlboro because of the weight assignment. I wanted the Bid to take down Affirmed that day, but I would have to wait. The opportunity came in the following month’s Jockey Club Gold Cup. It is widely know that a great older horse has the advantage over a great three-year-old and that fact was bore out in the Gold Cup. Disappointment. Affirmed beat Spectacular Bid by ¾ of a length. It was horse racing at its best, two titans running their hearts out, but in my mind the wrong horse won. Affirmed had set a dawdling pace, one that Shoemaker admittedly misjudged. It was a distance more suited to the Harbor View runner and despite repeated accelerations by the Bid, Affirmed would have an answer every time. It was Affirmed’s final career race; he would go out a champion. For my pick, the Gold Cup of 1979 was a loss, but in know way did it lessen the legend of Spectacular Bid. Good news followed the loss as his connections reaffirmed that he would return to race at four. Never one to shrink from the limelight, Delp brought back the Bid 12 days later for one more race at three. He outclassed a solid field in the Meadowlands Cup before a short winter rest in California.
In the fine tradition of Grover Buddy Delp, I sum up his 1980 season this way…At four, Spectacular Bid was the greatest older horse in the history of the sport. Big words I know, but I truly believe the Bid backed them up. His six consecutive wins in Southern California were phenomenal. If the track was decent he broke the track record or even a world record. The challenge of a really good horse, poor Flying Paster, meant little to the Bid. Sprints to routes made no matter, Spectacular Bid was unbeatable. Only nagging leg problems limited the number of races he would run, but they would not limit how well he ran. The Malibu, San Fernando, Strub, the Big Cap, the Mervyn LeRoy, and Californian were proof to all that Spectacular Bid was a superhorse. I will not bore you by reciting all of his times, suffice it to say they were out of this world. Delp longed for his horse to be appreciated everywhere and so the Bid hit the road. Chicago would be next. His win in the Washington Park was sublime poetry in motion. It was a facile ten length score under 130 pounds that underscored the beauty of the Bid. Monmouth fans got another chance to see Spectacular Bid and he ran his worst race of the year in the Haskell Handicap. Only winning by 1 ¾ lengths while giving 15 pounds to the champion mare Glorious Song. Not bad for a dull performance. His next race would be the Woodward walkover. It was something I had never seen before and probably will never see again. It was the ultimate showing of respect to an ultimate horse.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup would be his next race and it would afford me one last opportunity to see him race in person. No such luck, as another chip was detected in his left front leg. He had been most likely been running with one chip all year, but now it was decided that there was too much of an issue to ignore, and he was scratched and retired. 26 wins and only four losses in thirty lifetime races. I mentioned all of his losses as they are so easily explained. Who knows, a little luck and maybe he would have been 30 for 30. He retired to a good, but far from spectacular breeding career. He started at stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky and ended it in upstate New York. Spectacular Bid lived to the age of 27 and passed away on June 9, 2003. It was 24 years to the day after his Belmont Stakes Day troubles. As I write this and recall all the times I watched in awe of this great horse, I can’t help but wonder if Buddy Delp had been right all along when he said he was the best horse ever to look through a bridle. Yes, the Bid was that good. I remember you Spectacular Bid.