SPECTACULAR BID—THE HORSE THAT ALMOST WON THE TRIPLE CROWN
In the annals of horse racing history, there are few champions like Spectacular Bid. In every way, the colt was the supreme runner of his era. Trained by Bud Delp and owned by Hawksworth Farm, Spectacular Bid would become remembered as the one horse that should have won the Triple Crown but didn’t. A series of controversial incidents would deprive the big horse of horse racing’s most impressive achievement.
A Spectacular Horse is Born
On February 17, 1976, horse breeder Madelyn Jason and her mother Mrs. William Gilmore welcomed a new addition to their breeding farm. The horse was a steel gray color. His grandsire was the legendary Bold Ruler. Jason may have knew from the very beginning that this horse was going to be something special and put her breeding operation on the map.
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Some were skeptical. There was simply too much inbreeding in Spectacular Bid’s pedigree. All horses in racing descend from the same three stallions, so each has inbreeding to some degree. In this horse’s case, it was pronounced. Only Northern Dancer had previously shown such inbreeding and went on to win the Kentucky Derby. Later, Big Brown would accomplish the same thing with a similar pedigree. It doesn’t seem to happen very often for horses with strong inbreeding.
As a result, the horse sold for a modest sum at auction. His new owners, Hawksworth Farm, paid just $37,000. That would be about $150,000 today. The price may sound high, but well-bred horses can easily go for twice that if buyers believe they have the potential to become great champions. The Maryland-based farm decided to send the horse to Bud Delp for training.
Spectacular Bid at Two
Some horses take a lot of time to mature and develop. Such was not the case with Spectacular Bid. The horse immediately took to training like the champion he would become. It was decided that the colt would make his debut at Pimlico Racecourse, the home of the Preakness Stakes. On June 30, 1978, Spectacular Bid entered his first race. The results were amazing. His victory was just 2/5 of a second shy of the Pimlico track record. Just a few weeks later he would tie the track record at Pimlico with another strong performance. Horse which make such a splash to begin their careers are almost always placed on a path to compete in major races. This horse was no exception. Delp and company had big plans for the big colt.
A series of stakes races came next. There were wins in the Grade III World’s Playground Stakes, the Grade I Champagne Stakes, and the Grade I Laurel Futurity. Any one of these wins today would be enough to put a horse on the Triple Crown trail. Spectacular Bid also won the Young America Stakes. Everything was looking great. But there was a problem emerging.
Delp had chosen the teenage jockey Ronnie Franklin as Spectacular Bid’s regular rider. Franklin was doing very well on the Maryland circuit, but he had yet to break free from the smaller tracks in Maryland to compete on racing’s biggest stages. He was talented, without question, but he also had a temper. Franklin was known for his confrontations with other jockeys on the circuit. He was also prone to erratic riding which other jockeys found objectionable. This often led to physical fights. He also had a problem with cocaine. Whether Delp knew the extent of these flaws is unknown. At any rate, the problems did not seem to be an issue in 1978. Spectacular Bid won seven of his nine races that year. His success was mostly overlooked in favor of Affirmed who was on his way to becoming the third Triple Crown champion of the 1970’s.
The Triple Crown Pursuit
1979 got off to a good start for Spectacular Bid. He had been given the Eclipse Award for Champion Two-Year-Old in 1978. Delp wasted no time and began 1979 in Florida where the prep races for the Kentucky Derby were just beginning to heat up. The horse quickly captured five such events in the early months of the year.
He won the Hutcheson Stakes, the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and the Florida Derby all held at Gulfstream Park. Then he took the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah Park. It was then on to Kentucky for one final tune-up before the Kentucky Derby. Spectacular Bid arrived at Keeneland to compete in the Blue Grass Stakes which he won.
At the Florida Derby, the impulsiveness of jockey Franklin was starting to appear. With Spectacular Bid clearly in control of the running, Franklin chose to push the horse even harder. When the race was over, Delp scolded the jockey in public. He is reputed to have told Franklin that he could have killed the horse by pushing him so hard. Delp was not a man to be toyed with, but in the aftermath of the blowup he changed his story and attempted to smooth things over in the press.
In May of 1979, Spectacular Bid arrived at the Kentucky Derby as an odds-on favorite. The public had made him 3/5. More than 150,000 people showed up in anticipation of what they believed would be yet another Triple Crown run. Three horses had accomplished the feat in the 1970’s and the popularity of horse racing was at an all-time high.
The horse was uncharacteristically nervous in the paddock and post parade before the race. Delp, however, was all cockiness and confidence. As the horse was led around the paddock, Delp yelled at those watching and told them to go make a bet. The race turned out to be anything but a slam dunk. Franklin held Spectacular Bid during the early stages of the race and saved his best run for the stretch. He almost waited too late. The colt came flying in the stretch to pass other horses and win, but the margin of victory was shorter than his fans were used to. Spectacular Bid had won by just 2 ¾ lengths. It was later revealed that his primary rival had suffered a cut leg during the running of the event.
The Preakness Stakes came next with Spectacular Bid once more installed as the favorite. Delp and Franklin were even more confident this time around. They were, after all returning to their home circuit. When the gates opened, the horse was bumped by other horses and got off to a bad start. This did not seem to affect his effort. He recovered to win and posted a faster time in the race than the previous two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
After the race, Franklin was not shy with the media. He reveled in giving interviews. In most of them he said that Spectacular Bid was “a cinch” to win the Triple Crown and that the horse could not be beaten. What he didn’t know was that the jockeys in the Belmont Park colony were watching with amusement. The colony there was filled with legendary riders like Angel Cordero, Jr. who regularly rode in Triple Crown races. They watched the young jockey from Maryland boast on television and eagerly awaited his arrival in New York for the Belmont Stakes. Some of them were determined to give him a lesson in race riding that he would not soon forget.
A Spectacular Failure at the Belmont Stakes
Franklin, Delp, and Spectacular Bid arrived in New York to try and win the Triple Crown. Things began to unravel almost from the start. The trouble that would come to define the week began with Franklin and his hot temper.
Three days before the Belmont Stakes, Franklin took a mount on another horse at the track and competed in a race. In the same race was Cordero. No one knows exactly what happened that day, but the general assumption is that Cordero rode tight and made things difficult for the teenager. Cordero was known to be an intimidating rider at the best of times. At the worst, he could be downright mean. Franklin’s bad temper would not let the matter stand, and when the race was over he confronted the veteran in the jockey’s room. Cordero’s response was to punch Franklin in the mouth and the two engaged in a brutal fistfight.
When word of the altercation got back to the New York stewards, they handed down a fine to Franklin. It appears that most of the jockeys in the jock’s room sided with Cordero. Welcome to New York, as the saying goes. Ronnie Franklin was learning the hard way that other riders do not always appreciate hubris, especially when it comes from a young rider who is about to compete for racing’s biggest trophy. Delp and his team were upset, to be sure, but Franklin was livid. For the next three days he stewed in his own juices and plotted revenge. No one was going to do this to him and get away with it.
Meanwhile, things weren’t going so well for the horse. In a strange twist of events, Spectacular Bid had taken a back seat in terms of publicity to his jockey. No one seemed to be paying him much attention. This was unfortunate. Someone discarded a large safety pin in the horse’s stall. The horse had stepped on the pin and it had punctured his hoof. There was now an infection in the hoof wall which required a vet to drill into the hoof to relieve the pressure. This type of injury leading up to a big race is never good, but Delp was undeterred. He claimed that Spectacular Bid was not lame and entered him to run in the race.
Franklin was thrilled, of course, and when the race started he decided that now would be his time to get his revenge on the New York jockey colony. Franklin began the 1 ½ mile aggressively, using rough riding tactics and pushing the horse to a commanding lead. The other riders, very aware of the long stretch run at Belmont Park, sat back and watched with glee as Franklin shot away. No horse could establish this kind of pace in the Belmont and hold on for the win, they believed. Franklin may have believed that if Secretariat could do it, so could Spectacular Bid. It is far more likely that he just wanted to show his fellow jockeys the greatness that they were unwilling to recognize in himself.
As the horses entered the long stretch run at Belmont Park, Spectacular Bid was growing tired. The heavy pace had taken a lot out of him. Franklin was helpless to watch as the horse was passed by Coastal. Franklin tried hard to hold on to second place. He was passed again by Golden Act. The best that the horse could manage was a third-place finish which left Delp and others to eat their words. Delp was especially sour. When asked by reporters about the defeat, he angrily proclaimed that his horse was just not suited for the distance of the race. He finally admitted that the best horse won that day, but it was obvious that Delp was embarrassed by the defeat.
Franklin left New York and headed to California with his tail between his legs. He had been given a rough lesson and he wasn’t use to being treated this way. Franklin turned to an old friend to console him. Just nine days after the Belmont Stakes, a bitter Franklin was arrested outside of Disneyland in Anaheim, California for the possession of cocaine. He had made a lot of money riding Spectacular Bid, but almost all of it had been squandered on drugs. Franklin would never again touch the withers of Spectacular Bid despite their massive success. He was replaced by legendary rider Bill Shoemaker.
Spectacular Bid Soldiers On
Even though his attempt to win the Triple Crown had ended in poor fashion, there was no reason to think that Spectacular Bid could not return to the races at four if Delp chose to race him. The trainer was still handling the horse and enjoyed the complete faith of the owners.
Bill Shoemaker was now going to be the jockey, and the Shoe was not anything like Ronnie Franklin. For starters, Shoe had the respect of every jockey in the country. They would not be able to bully Shoemaker the way they had bullied Franklin, and Shoemaker would not give them a reason to.
The results were good. The horse recovered and more races were won. It must have been hard for Franklin to watch how things were playing out for his old buddy Delp and Spectacular Bid. Ultimately, Franklin would virtually disappear from the racing scene altogether in a measure of disgrace. His actions had not only disgraced himself, but he had essentially helped to turn the public against the horse. They projected their dislike of the jockey on to the horse. More people were now hoping the horse would lose than that he would win.
Perhaps this is why Delp took a discreet path moving forward. He began Spectacular Bid’s four-year-old year at smaller tracks like Delaware Park and entered the horse in allowance races that he knew the horse could win. Some thought this was a shameful way to go, but for Delp it worked out perfectly.
Spectacular Bid at Stud
The four-year-old colt was entered in one final race in September of 1980. It was the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park. No other horses decided to challenge Spectacular Bid that day. In a rare walkover, a race where a horse runs alone against no competition, Spectacular Bid ran 1 ½ miles in 2:02.4. The irony of the race was hard to miss. Here was a horse setting a fast time on the very track and at the very distance which had been his downfall.
There were plans to race once more in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but an injury to the horse prompted Bud Delp to announce his retirement. Spectacular Bid was syndicated as a stud for a record at the the time–$22 million.
The horse was sent to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky to stand his stud service. Those who wanted to breed their mares to Spectacular Bid paid $150,000. In the first years of his service, the horse performed exceptionally well. In later years, his output declined and he was sent to a New York farm where his breeding fee was dropped to just $3,500. He never was pensioned. The last year of his life, Spectacular Bid bred ten mares. He died of a heart attack on June 9, 2003 and was buried on the farm.
A sign of how popular this horse was can be seen in the visits and letters he received at the New York farm. Children wrote to the horse as if he were a human being. Others traveled long distances just to get a look at him. Born with a dark, slate gray color, Spectacular Bid became whiter as he aged until his coat was dotted with light gray. He was, in every sense, a grand old man of horse racing.
Spectacular Bid won 26 of 30 races and retired with almost $3 million in earnings. He is remembered fondly today by those fortunate enough to have witnessed him in competition.
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