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1980 Horse of Year Spectacular Bid Dies

Thoroughbred won 26 of 30 races, including the 1979 Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but faded to third in the Belmont.

June 11, 2003|Bob Mieszerski | Times Staff Writer

Spectacular Bid, the winner of the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and perhaps the best horse ever to fall one race short of sweeping the Triple Crown, died Monday afternoon of an apparent heart attack.

A son of Bold Bidder out of the Promised Land mare Spectacular, the 27-year-old gray, who had turned white as he aged, was the second Derby winner to die in less than a week. Sunny's Halo, who won the world's most famous race in 1983, was euthanized on June 3.

A winner of 26 of 30 starts and a champion all three years he raced, including a horse-of-the-year title in 1980, Spectacular Bid was to be buried at Dr. Jonathan Davis' Milfer Farm near Unadilla in upstate New York. The horse had been moved to Milfer in 1992 to stand as a stallion after 11 years at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.

"I feel bad, but it's not a total shock," trainer Bud Delp said. "I saw him last summer and he was running and romping around. He had a good life both at Claiborne and at Milfer. They loved him up there.

"I guarantee you he liked his 23 years in retirement better than the three years I had him."

Spectacular Bid died 24 years, to the day, after his defeat in the Belmont Stakes. Trying to become the third Triple Crown winner in a row, after Seattle Slew and Affirmed in 1977 and '78, Spectacular Bid was compromised by a safety pin and an ill-timed ride by jockey Ronnie Franklin.

Owned by Harry and Teresa Meyerhoff's Hawksworth Farm, Spectacular Bid easily had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to remain perfect as a 3-year-old.

These victories followed five earlier wins -- in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park, the Hutcheson Stakes, Fountain Of Youth, Florida Derby and Blue Grass.

Before Spectacular Bid's 4 1/2-length victory in the Florida Derby, Delp uttered a statement that became famous.

It also was controversial, given some of the horses -- specifically, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed -- who had run during the 1970s.

"Only an act of God can keep us from winning the Triple Crown," Delp said. "This is the best racehorse ever to look through a bridle."

However, on the morning of the Belmont, Spectacular Bid stepped on the stray pin in his stall, then was ridden with little patience by the young Franklin. Racing on the lead for the 1 1/2 miles, a tired Spectacular Bid faded to third in the stretch, beaten by Coastal and Golden Act.

Delp, who was elected to racing's Hall of Fame last year, said Tuesday he'd considered scratching the colt that day, but didn't after watching Spectacular Bid jog a few hours before the Belmont.

"Harry left it up to me," he said. "He jogged sound and the foot was cold. I still believe Bid would have won had Ronnie ridden a better race. It was the only race in his life where another horse passed him in the stretch."

Spectacular Bid then developed an infection in his right front foot after the safety-pin incident and didn't race for more than 2 1/2 months.

The Belmont was one of only two defeats he suffered in 12 starts in 1979 en route to being voted champion 3-year-old. As a 2-year-old, he had won seven of nine, including a 15-length victory in the World's Playground at Atlantic City and a track-record victory in the Laurel Futurity.

"I was surprised to hear of his death because he had been OK," said Harry Meyerhoff, who bought the Kentucky-bred for a modest $37,000. "But, I'm not shocked he died because he was 27. I'm glad he didn't suffer.

"He was absolutely the best horse who ever looked through a bridle. I don't really have a lot to say about him because he spoke for himself. He was so smart. He was a great racehorse who gave us a lot of pleasure."

After he capped his 3-year-old season with a victory in the Meadowlands Cup, Spectacular Bid was brought to California.

Brilliant before, he was even better as a 4-year-old. In what was arguably the greatest year any thoroughbred has ever had, Spectacular Bid won all nine of his starts in 1980 -- five of them at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park.

With Bill Shoemaker, who had replaced Franklin after the Belmont, aboard, Spectacular Bid swept the Strub Series, winning the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes by five lengths in 1:20, a track record that still stands; the San Fernando by 1 1/2 lengths over chief rival Flying Paster, then the Strub in what is still a North American-record 1:57 4/5 for the 1 1/4 miles.

Carrying 130 pounds in the Santa Anita Handicap, he splashed to a five-length victory over Flying Paster in 2:00 3/5, then continued his roll in Inglewood.

Spectacular Bid won the Mervyn LeRoy by seven lengths under 132 pounds, then set a track record, 1:45 4/5 in winning the Californian under 130.

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