1980: A Spectacular Strub Series
In October of 1979, the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont featured a star-studded showdown. Two of the main players had the distinction of being the most recent winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. They were Affirmed, who swept the Triple Crown the year before, and Spectacular Bid, the dual classic champion of 1979.
Both horses were more than talented. They were regal, fearless, and competitive. Each one loved winning races, and their presence made the Jockey Club Gold Cup a must-see event in the annals of Thoroughbred racing.
Affirmed was the victor in what proved to be his career finale at the track where he debuted more than two years prior. Spectacular Bid was the runner up, losing for just the second time that year (the other was the Belmont Stakes, where he finished third). One more race, and win, would come for the Bid in 1979, and that was in the Grade II Meadowlands cup less than two weeks later.
But, the Jockey Club Gold Cup was a symbolic moment for him. It marked a changing of the guard. While Spectacular Bid did not beat Affirmed, he was now in position to take over the handicap division with the retirement of the former. As history later showed, the charge of Grover Delp made the most of the opportunity presented to him.
It would be early January when Spectacular Bid returned to the races. The venue was Santa Anita, where Affirmed had started his brilliant four year old campaign one year earlier. The two horses shared something in common: the seven furlong Malibu Stakes would be the first start of their respective four year old campaigns. A win in the Grade II contest eluded Affirmed in 1979, but that was not the case with the Bid. He was last early, but the five horse field was closely grouped as they traveled down Santa Anita's backstretch.
With no ounce of fear and a drive to win, Spectacular Bid wasted little time splitting Flying Paster and Known Presence, who were directly in front of him. He then engaged Flying Paster around the far turn as they battled with the leader. After turning nicely into the frontstretch, Spectacular Bid continued his drive on the outside of his rivals. With the look of a warrior, he surged ahead, powering away from everybody in the final moments to win by five lengths. He moved fluidly nearing the wire, almost as if he had been out for just a gallop.
It was the perfect debut for him as an older horse, and he left his imprint on the Malibu thanks to his performance.
The time was 1:20 2/5, which became the fastest clocking in the history of the Malibu Stakes. No horse would break that record until Twirling Candy thirty years later.
Only two weeks separated the Malibu from the Bid's encore performance. It was round two of the Strub Series: the 1 1/8 mile San Fernando Stakes, a Grade II event. Only three rivals met him in the 1 1/8 mile event. Spectacular Bid drew the rail, and he and Shoemaker stayed along the inside with Flying Paster. Both horses were well back early, letting Relaunch, the leader, and Timbo move ahead. Spectacular Bid got clear for third place by the time he left the clbuhouse turn, and his eyes were fixed on the leaders. Suddenly, the reigning Champion Three Year Old accelerated with authority, first catching Timbo and then Relaunch. They were together moving around the far turn, and then Spectacular Bid just drew away with seemingly no trouble. It was a confident move by a champion horse, and he was well ahead of Relaunch as the top of the stretch neared.
But, the race was not finished yet. Flying Paster quickly flew into second place, and was gaining heavily on the favorite. He caught up as they completed the turn, and both horses dug in for a tough battle. The Paster was valiant, but the Bid was once again victorious. Each of them gave it their all in the straight, but the gray son of Bold Bidder had more, moving fiercely but gracefully as he took the San Fernando by more than a length in 1:48. That set the stage for a possible rare achievement at Santa Anita, and fans would have to wait two more weeks to see whether Spectacular Bid could accomplish it.
The list of horses that swept the Strub Series was quite small during the winter of 1980. Only Round Table (1958), Hillsdale (1959), and Ancient Title (1974) had captured all three races that made up the sequence. It was a unique accomplishment, for it tested a horse's ability at sprinting and routing. When it came to the latter, that meant performing at both a middle distance and a classic distance. In the case of Spectacular Bid, he was well experienced in all three categories. Given his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Meadowlands Cup, the 1 1/4 miles that made up the Grade I Charles H. Strub Stakes looked to be no problem for the great equine.
Once more, very few horses met with Spectacular Bid. Just three went with him into the starting gate. As they moved forward from Santa Anita's 1 1/4 mile chute, Shoemaker and the Bid opted for the inside again. Relaunch stormed to the lead, while Valdez and Flying Paster were second and third, respectively.
Relaunch already had a sizable lead as he began the last lap around the track. Everyone else was close together, not making any moves in the early goings. Relaunch just kept building his lead while going around the first turn and backstretch. Spectacular Bid slotted into second on the inside, but found a battle with Valdez as Flying Paster occupied the rear. The Bid was not fazed, keeping watch on Relaunch while taking on Valdez. The leader was setting a taxing pace, getting the half-mile in less than 45 seconds. That caught up to him fast, for Spectacular Bid unleashed a move just like the one he performed in the San Fernando. Without warning, the Charles H. Strub Stakes quickly became a three-horse race.
Spectacular Bid and Valdez took on Relaunch in the far turn, the latter soon dropping out of the battle. Relaunch was not backing down from the Bid, continuing on the inside as he attempted to take the field the entire length of the race. Behind that trio came Flying Paster, who was making a similar move nearing the frontstretch like he did a fortnight earlier. Meanwhile, Spectacular Bid won the battle with Relaunch, firmly in the lead as he straightened for the last part of the race. Flying Paster again advance to second, but he had nothing for his rival.
No one did.
They were all trying, but he was just too good. Racing along the inside, Spectacular Bid and Shoemaker marched forward. They reached the wire by daylight, linked together in racing history as champions of the Strub Series. It was the perfect ending to the last couple of weeks.
Spectacular Bid's stride was deceptively fast; it looked effortless in the stretch. That made his race time all the more impressive. He ran the ten furlongs in 1:57 4/5, the fastest of any horse to ever win the race at 1 1/4 miles. The Charles H. Strub Stakes was run at that distance through 1997, and no horse came close to matching that time. In fact, only one horse, Best Pal, ran the race in less than two minutes after Spectacular Bid did it in 1980.
Victory in the Santa Anita Handicap followed, and the rest of the year saw the Bid complete an undefeated campaign that climaxed with a walkover in the Grade I Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park. There was no doubt as to which horse would take home the Eclipse Awards for Top Handicap Horse and Horse of the Year. Both went to Spectacular Bid, and each accolade was richly deserved.
The fans who packed Santa Anita during the 1979-1980 season saw a horse who was truly brilliant. He won twenty-six of his thirty career starts, and was worse than third only once. Spectacular Bid made sure he was remembered for his overall body of work, but he ensured a special place for himself in Southern California racing with his Strub Series triumph.
He was a well-nuanced horse full of speed, grace, and power. Those that watched him in person remember those thrilling performances and the tremendous all-around talent he displayed.
As of 2019, patrons that attend Santa Anita will find in their programs that the track record for a 1 1/4 mile race still belongs to Spectacular Bid. Not just the race record, but the actual track record.
Many horses have competed at that distance since 1980, but none of them have been able set a new standard.
Nearly forty years after his adventures at Santa Anita, Spectacular Bid's presence is still felt there.
Source: Santa Anita Winter 2019 Media Guide, pgs. 22, 44, 100, 109. https://www.santaanita.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/2019MG_web.pdf