A Classy Champion, 1989 Belmont Stakes Winner Easy Goer
Between that glorious day in June 1978 when Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner and June 2015 when American Pharoah halted the 37-year drought, 13 horses fell one win short in their bid for racing immortality.
Each of them failed to build off victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and was unable to win the final and longest race in the series. Aside from I’ll Have Another, they all suffered a stunning and heartbreaking loss in the Belmont Stakes, and together they form a list that includes some of the best and most famous horses of this era.
Yet of that group of 13, if there’s one of them who seemed the most likely to join the ranks of the Triple Crown champions, it had to be Spectacular Bid.
The gray son of Bold Bidder won 26 of 30 starts in a magnificent career that spanned 1978-’80.
Horse of the Year at 4 during an undefeated 1980 campaign, his dominance was best reflected in that year’s Woodward Stakes, when no one would face him and he cantered around Belmont Park in the sport’s last walkover in a Grade 1 stakes.
Eight times he matched or set a track record.
He retired with then-record earnings of $2,781,608.
One of his four defeats came at the hands of a Triple Crown winner.
He was the last horse to be named a champion at 2, 3 and 4.
And yet for all that he accomplished in his career, it was the 1979 Belmont Stakes, when he finished a shocking third, that remains his most discussed moment. One seemingly simple win shy of becoming the sport’s third straight Triple Crown champion, he tired in the stretch and suffered a loss that had no shortage of alibis, including, of all things, a safety pin.
It was indeed a remarkable career, one that started in unassuming fashion at Pimlico Race Course on June 30, 1978, with a 3 ¼-length win. Owned by Harry Meyerhoff’s Hawksworth Farm, Spectacular Bid was trained by the brash Grover “Buddy” Delp, who was a kingpin on the Maryland circuit and best known for his success with claimers.
After a win in his second career start, Spectacular Bid had a miserable trip in the slop while finishing fourth in the Tyro Stakes at Monmouth and then finished second in the Dover Stakes at Delaware Stakes.
A $37,000 yearling purchase, he rebounded with a 15-length win in the World’s Playground Stakes at Atlantic City, and the rest is history. He closed out 1978 with wins in the Champagne Stakes, Young America Stakes, Laurel Futurity and Heritage Stakes to wrap up the 2-year-old championship.
At three, Bid won the Hutcheson Stakes, Fountain of Youth Stakes, Florida Derby, Flamingo Stakes and Blue Grass Stakes – the last two by a combined margin of 19 lengths – and was installed as a prohibitive favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
He wasn’t a sentimental favorite, though. As big as Spectacular Bid’s fan club might have been, Delp rubbed just as many people the wrong way earlier in the year when he brazenly proclaimed the gray colt to be “the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle.” In a decade that featured Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Forego, that was viewed in some corners as cocky and overly lofty praise for a colt that had yet to win a single Triple Crown race.
Part of that equation changed at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May when Spectacular Bid posted a 2 ¾-length win over General Assembly in the run for the roses as a 3-5 favorite.
In the Preakness, only four challengers showed up to face him and he won by 5 ½ lengths for his 12th straight victory. Sent off as a huge 1-10 favorite, he paid $2.20 to win, matching Citation in 1948 for the lowest payout in the race’s history.
A Triple Crown sweep seemed a mere formality, but it was not to be.
Perhaps his inexperienced jockey, Ron Franklin, pushed him through fractions that were simply too fast (six furlongs in 1:11 1/5) when the teenaged rider made an ill-advised decision to chase 85-1 longshot Gallant Bid on Belmont Park’s seemingly endless backstretch.
Maybe fatigue finally caught up with him.
Or, it might have been a safety pin.
Delp said that on the morning of the Belmont Stakes Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin that had fallen off a leg wrap. The pin lodged in Spectacular Bid’s hoof, creating a wound and minor infection that required frantic treatment to get the colt ready to run in the “Test of the Champion.”
Whatever it was, in the stretch of his most important race, Spectacular Bid turned mortal. He weakened as Coastal surged past him along the rail to win by 3 ¼ lengths and Golden Act, the Preakness runner-up, collared him in the final strides to take second by a neck.
Given nearly three months off after his Belmont defeat, Spectacular Bid returned to races with a new jockey in Hall of Famer Bill Shoemaker and posted a 17-length score in an allowance race at Delaware Park. That tune-up put him on edge for a five-length score in the Marlboro Cup Handicap over a field that included General Assembly and Coastal.
After that came his most gallant defeat, when he took on 1978 Triple Crown champion Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and gave the 4-year-old a tremendous battle, losing by three-quarters of a length to his older rival.
That would be Spectacular Bid’s last defeat as he won the 1979 Meadowlands Cup and then all nine of his starts at four. The end came on Sept. 20, 1980, in the Woodward, when the scratch of Marlboro Cup winner Winter’s Tale prompted the connections of Temperence Hill and Dr. Patches to also pull out of the race, giving Spectacular Bid a walkover in the final race of a career that was quite fittingly, spectacular.
“Of the horses I'm familiar with,” Delp said in a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times, “only Citation and Secretariat would have run with the Bid.”
Syndicated for a then-record $22 million, Spectacular Bid’s career at stud failed to match his brilliance on the racetrack. He sired 253 winners, including 47 stakes winners, though none were champions.
He died in 2003 at the age of 27. In a final, ironic twist, he suffered a fatal heart attack on June 9, 24 years to the day that he lost in what was his most famous race, the Belmont Stakes.
Note: This story was published in 2014 and has been updated.
- Spectacular Bid was the last horse to be named a champion at 2, 3 and 4.
- He won 14 Grade 1 stakes at 11 different tracks
- He carried 130 pounds or more five times and won each time
- He set or matched eight track records at distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 ¼ miles
- Flying Paster finished second to Spectacular Bid in four straight races during 1980
- Spectacular Bid retired as the sport’s all-time leading money-earner with $2,781,608
- He was purchased for $37,000 at the 1977 Keeneland September yearling sale
- He was last favorite to win the Kentucky Derby in the 20th Century
- Spectacular Bid was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1982
- His walkover in the 1980 Woodward was the last in a major American race and also the first in 32 years, dating back to Citation’s walkover in the 1948 Pimlico Special
- He was ranked 10th in a Blood-Horse poll of the top horses of the 20th Century
- Gulfstream Park is home to the Spectacular Bid Stakes, a $100,000 race for 3-year-olds