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Jockey Bill Shoemaker, in a gesture that seemed to say that the past was indeed behind, stood high in Spectacular Bid's stirrups and stole one final glance over his right shoulder. The Belmont Park finish line swept by, the Marlboro Cup was over, and with it any dispute that might have lingered as to who is the finest 3-year-old in the land. Spectacular Bid had just run away from the field in the $300,000 race, three months after he had suffered a stunning loss to Coastal in the Belmont Stakes, a defeat that had cost him the Triple Crown.
Following a classic hesitation waltz down the backstretch—the opening half-mile was a poky 47[2/5]—the Shoe sent Bid to the front, softened his rivals with a brisk 23[3/5] third quarter, and then left them as he pleased to win by five lengths. When Bid crossed the finish line, the crowd was on its feet roaring. Shoemaker was looking back, and trainer Bud Delp and owners Harry and Teresa Meyerhoff were bounding from their seats and hurrying toward the winner's circle. Delp wrapped his arm around Harry's shoulder as they wound down the circular staircase to victory lane. Meyerhoff's face was flushed. "Did you see that half in 47 and 2?" he said. "Who were they trying to kid?"
Delp laughed, and whispered into the redness of Harry's right ear. "I saw that 47 and 2 and I thought, 'This race is now history; how sweet it is!' "
History it was, and how sweet the vindication was for all those connected with the colt. On a track labeled fast but obviously dull, Bid raced the nine furlongs in 1:46[3/5], the final three-eighths in a sparkling 35[2/5]. Behind him, game but tired, came the record-smashing Travers winner, General Assembly, and then Coastal, who was unable to muster a finishing kick off the slow early fractions. Bid had not only reestablished himself as the best 3-year-old, but he also gave reasonable cause for his followers to proclaim that he is the most capable racehorse in America—faster and finer than even Affirmed.
Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown winner, who this year became the first thoroughbred to earn $2 million in purses, spent the day in his stall at Belmont. That he was not out on the track was at once the most disappointing and controversial aspect of the Marlboro. It was disappointing in that his defection deprived the race of the showdown for which everyone had been waiting, one that had promised to make the Marlboro one of the most dramatic horse races of modern times. And controversial in that Affirmed's trainer, Laz Barrera, ducked the race because he did not like handicapper Lenny Hale's weight assignments. Hale gave Affirmed high weight of 133 pounds, which Barrera thought was fair, and assigned only 124 to Spectacular Bid, which Barrera thought was not. Many horsemen questioned Barrera's decision, but the trainer stuck to it, with owner Lou Wolfson backing him.
The way Bid ran, Barrera may have decided wisely. Bid, who was obviously not himself in the Belmont Stakes, was as sharp as he had been earlier in the spring, when he was so much the best that he won despite the sometimes tentative guidance of his rider, the inexperienced Ronnie Franklin. Indeed, he might have won the Belmont had a more confident rider been aboard. As it was, says Delp, the colt competed after overcoming an injury he said Bid suffered on the morning of the Belmont. According to his trainer, Bid stepped on a safety pin in his stall, driving it into his hoof. Delp said that Bid's groom had discovered the injury. "He's lame!" the groom yelled. "He's lame!" Delp rushed into the stall, lifted the hoof and pulled out the pin.
When Delp told this tale after Coastal had beaten Bid, there were snickers from those who sensed they were downwind of something very fishy, especially after a New York Racing Association delegation visited the colt in Maryland and pronounced him sound. "This isn't the kind of thing I could make up," Delp protests. "I know all those New York reporters called me a liar...since I pulled that pin out, sealing off the spot, you couldn't see anything. If I was on the outside looking in, I'm not sure I'd believe it, either."
Injury or not, there was so much at stake that Delp decided to run Bid in the Belmont. Unquestionably the colt lacked his characteristic punch. "The Belmont knocked the hell out of him," Delp says now. "The first four days after the race he lost 30 pounds." A week after returning to Maryland, with the colt turning lame, Delp called on Dr. Alex Harthill, the noted Kentucky veterinarian, to treat him. Harthill says that the pin had punctured about three-eighths of an inch into the hoof, penetrating the nutrient-bearing channels of the sensitive laminae. The puncture caused a hematoma, or swelling of blood, within hours after the injury, speculates Harthill, and the subsequent pounding of the hoof on the racetrack aggravated the condition. "I think he ran with pain," Harthill says.
Harthill carefully pared the bottom of the hoof. "You could see a tiny hole as you were paring," he says. "It was very, very obvious." When he finally got down to the hematoma, pus squirted out. The wound was allowed to drain for several days, and a blacksmith fitted the colt with a special shoe, with a silver-dollar-sized metal plate covering the injury. Bid was put on antibiotics and tubbed in warm water and epsom salts. Gelatin was added to his diet to promote speedy growth of the hoof. All the while there was speculation by Delp and other horsemen about whether the colt would run again this year, if ever. "That's two months' growth we're talking about, but we got it back in about six weeks," Delp says. "That in itself is unbelievable."
For all he went through, Bid missed little training. He galloped regularly during his convalescence, and for a while Delp actually thought he could get the colt in shape in time for the Travers at Saratoga. But Aug. 18 came too soon. Instead, a week later, Bid raced for the first time since the Belmont in a 1[1/16]-mile allowance race at Delaware Park. With Shoemaker on him for the first time—a grateful Franklin was mercifully replaced following the Belmont—he won by 17 lengths in a track-record 1:41[3/5]. Ready now, Delp aimed Bid for the Marlboro Cup, thinking he would finally have a shot at Affirmed. Then Hale announced the weights, and Barrera said no thanks.