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 stuff.
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�-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� 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. Help 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.