Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Dominator Running in a golden age, Bid was in a class of his own

In the long annals of thoroughbred racing in America, no decade
gave the sport as many surpassing horses as the 1970s. Only the
1940s, with Count Fleet and Citation leading the way, comes
remotely close. The '70s were racing's golden age--a glorious
stage on which Secretariat, Ruffian, Forego, Seattle Slew,
Affirmed, Alydar and Spectacular Bid strutted their incomparable

By 2003 all of them were dead but one. And then, as of last
Monday, there were none. On June 9, 24 years to the day after
suffering the most memorable defeat of his career, in the 1979
Belmont Stakes--a loss that prevented him from becoming the
decade's fourth Triple Crown winner--27-year-old Spectacular Bid
died of old age at the farm in upstate New York to which he had
been exiled after a failed career as a stallion in Kentucky. He
won an astonishing 26 of 30 races--all but three of his victories
came in stakes--and $2.78 million in purses. In one improbable
eight-race stretch in 1979 he shattered five track records,
lowering Santa Anita's seven-furlong mark to a hysterical 1:20
and its 1 1/4-mile record on dirt to a blistering 1:57 4/5.

In that era of champions, none was as brilliant a 4-year-old as
Spectacular Bid in 1980, and one has to go back to '53, when Tom
Fool won 10 of 10 races, including New York's triple crown for
older horses, to find an equal. In '80 Bid won all nine races he
entered. He so dominated that no horse opposed him in the
Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park, his final start. He went to the
post alone and toured the grounds in a walkover, under Bill
Shoemaker, a jockey who rode some of the swiftest horses in
history: Swaps, Dr. Fager, Damascus and Forego. Of Spectacular
Bid, Shoemaker said simply, "He is the best horse I ever sat on."

For all the lasting images of his championship seasons--his gait
always steady as a drumroll, his head rising and his gray mane
flying as he lit the fire off the turn for home--what we remember
best is his eye-popping performance in the 1979 Florida Derby. He
had been America's 2-year-old champion in '78, an easy winner in
his first two races as a 3-year-old, and all jockey Ron Franklin
had to do was keep Bid clear of trouble and hang on. Alas,
Franklin was only 19 and unseasoned, and it remains a wonder how
the horse survived the race at all. Leaving the gate, he banged
hard against it, and around the first turn he nearly clipped
another horse's heels as Franklin swung him outside. The jock
then rushed Bid to the inside, where he had to steady him twice
in traffic, and around the last turn he had to ease him back to
find running room.

Trainer Bud Delp watched all this in horror. There was no way Bid
could win after such trouble. Yet the colt raced home first by 4
1/2 lengths. Descending to the track in a fury, Delp would have
liked to wring the rider's neck. "You damned idiot!" he howled as
Franklin returned to the winner's circle. "You almost got the
horse killed out there!" Franklin dismounted the horse in tears.

Other jockeys started cruising like sharks around Delp's barn,
looking to get the mount, but Delp, who had an affection for the
kid, kept Franklin on the colt through the Triple Crown. He had
won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and was expected to
gallop home in the Belmont when the Fates intervened. The colt
stepped on an open safety pin on the morning of the Belmont,
driving it a half-inch into the left front foot, and he faded in
the race, finishing third. When Delp told the story of the pin,
many hooted skeptically--"They called me a liar!" Delp says--but
trainer Mack Miller, who had horses in the same barn as Bid,
recalls that one of Delp's workers came over early that morning
and, seeking help, said, "The Bid stepped on a safety pin."

The colt lost only once after that Belmont, when Affirmed
cantered on an easy lead in the Jockey Club Gold Cup that fall
and beat him by three quarters of a length. That winter Bid began
the 1980 campaign by which history will always remember him. Delp
still chants the mantra he has been chanting for years: "He's the
greatest horse that ever looked through a bridle." He certainly
grazes in the tall grass--among the giants. --William Nack

COLOR PHOTO: JERRY COOKE (TOP) BIDDING ADIEU The '79 Derby winner (above) retired to New York.