He is among the most dominant Thoroughbreds in the history of the turf. Much like Native Dancer roughly a quarter-century earlier, his gray coat made him easy to spot on track. But he was even easier to spot in the final stretch of a race. Very few horses had an answer for him on race day. And even fewer could exert superiority at his level.
A champion several times over, he is also one of the greatest to have never won the Triple Crown, a prize he really was worthy of achieving. But at the same time, he put together one of racing's most legendary and storied careers. And it was a good bet that when fans came to see Spectacular Bid run, they would ultimately find him in the winners' circle.
Bred by Mrs. William Gilmore and Mrs. William Jason, Spectacular Bid was bought for $37,000 by Harry, Tom and Teresa Meyerhoff at the 1977 Keeneland Yearling Sale.
A son of Bold Bidder and Spectacular, Bid was campagined in the name of Hawksworth Farm. Trained by Grover "Bud" Delp, the gray colt was brilliant at two. Debuting with Ron Franklin (who rode the colt for much of his first two seasons at the races) in the irons, Bid won first time out. He ultimately captured seven of nine starts and finished worse than third only once during the 1978 season. Five of his wins were in graded stakes (three of them alone were at the Grade I level), and his season was highlighted by dominant wins in the Grade III World's Playground and Grade I Laurel Futurity. Bid thoroughly outclassed his opposition in both events, and his overall resume netted him top juvenile honors.
The season proved to be a foreshadowing of the dominance and versatility Spectacular Bid would show for the rest of his career. He won at four different distances that year, two of them sprints, the other pair routes. And he won the World's Playground on a track labeled good.
If Spectacular Bid was brilliant at two, he was electrifying at three. Sent to Florida for the winter, he breezed through his Kentucky Derby prep races, winning from either on the lead or from off the pace. First came the Fountain of Youth Stakes (Grade III), then the Florida Derby, Flamingo and Blue Grass Stakes, all Grade I's. No one could stop him at Gulfstream and Hialeah that winter and spring (he won those starts by close to a combined thirty lengths), and those outings made Spectacular Bid the odds-on favorite for the 1979 Kentucky Derby.
He made good on the support given to him in Louisville. Heading the tote board at 3-5 odds, Spectacular Bid rallied from far off the pace to defeat his nine rivals and win the contest. He did the very same thing two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes. In what was a homecoming for the champion (he won his first two races there), few predicted anything other than a twelfth straight win from Bid, and they were proven correct at Pimlico.
Taking advantage of an early battle between Flying Paster and General Assembly, Bid again came from a few lengths behind. He had the race won before the quarter-pole, putting away his four rivals with ease as he put himself in position to become racing's third straight Triple Crown winner.
Alas, it wasn't to be. On the morning of the Belmont Stakes, Spectacular Bid reportedly stepped on a safety pin that somehow came off one of his leg wraps. This was reporetd by Delp after the race, and Bid was obviously cleared to compete. But getting caught up in a blazingly fast pace for the Belmont's 1 1/2-mile distance did not help Bid, who finished third as his chance to become the third consecutive Triple Crown champion was halted.
The Belmont would be the first of two losses for Spectacular Bid in 1979. The other came in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont in October. Bid lost to Affirmed in that one, but won three more races that included the Grade I Marlboro Cup and Grade II Meadowlands Cup to be crowned Top Three-Year-Old Male for the season.
Just as Affirmed succeeded fellow Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in the handicap ranks, Spectacular Bid did the same after Affirmed retired. Brilliant at two, and electrifying at three, one word sums up Bid at four years old: invincible.
Sent to Santa Anita Park, Spectacular Bid wasted no time in setting the tempo for 1980. Now teaming with Bill Shoemaker (who had been riding since Bid's return the previous August), Bid won handily in the Grade II Malibu stakes in early January, then went on to take the Grade II San Fernando and Grade I Charles H. Strub Stakes to be just the fourth horse to sweep the Strub Series, which was sort of a Triple Crown at Santa Anita's winter/spring meet for many years. That enhanced Bid's stardom, gaining such a rare achievement, but he was not done at Santa Anita yet.
Bid followed that up with a win in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, and that gave him some redemption. The Big 'Cap was run over a sloppy surface, and one of Spectacular Bid's few losses came over a track of that rating when he lost a division of Monmouth Park's Tyro Stakes in the summer of 1978. It may have been at the other end of the United States, but Bid avenged the Tyro loss in terms of being able to win in the slop.
The rest of the year saw Bid win out West, in the Midwest, and finally the East. Shoemaker was there every step of the way as Bid manhandled his foes in the Grade II Mervyn LeRoy Handicap at Hollywood Park. He followed that up with victory in the Grade I Californian before decimating his rivals in the Grade III Washington Park Handicap at Arlington. Next came an excursion to New Jersey where he took the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth, and then Bid got ready for the final start of his career.
Returning to Belmont Park, Bid started in the 1980 Woodward Stakes. That edition became famous due to the lack of opposition Bid faced. Such was his stature and power as a racehorse that no one dared to oppose him on track. Over fifteen months after his defeat in the Belmont Stakes, Bid received his moment of triumph at Big Sandy that everyone had geared up for in 1979. Taking part in a walkover, Bid boasted nine wins in as many races as an older horse, and the Woodward concluded one of the most truly remarkable campaigns by any racehorse.
Retired after the Woodward, the son of Spectacular won a whopping twenty-six races in thirty starts. He was a runner up twice, and owned one third. The Tyro, his third career start, accounted for the lone off the board result. Bid also collected more than $2.7 million, a record for the time. Not bad for a horse purchased for $37,000.
A couple more trophies awaited him some months after the Woodward, for Bid won the Eclipse Awards for Top Handicap Male and Horse of the Year. No horse since Bid has won divisional titles at two, three, and four years of age. The Hall of Fame came calling in 1982, an immensely deserved honor for a wonderfully gifted horse.
He is a horse that exemplified awe, brilliance, class, domination, and effort. Spectacular Bid was the total package as far as Thoroughbreds go. He handled just about any distance he tried, won at fourteen different tracks, and could win on surfaces with different ratings. People believed he could take on anything, too. He went off favored in all but four of his starts, most of them below even money.
His gray coat might be considered symbolic, for it could easily capture one's attention. And in the case of this particular equine, more than one person watched him in action every time he showed up on track.
But Spectacular Bid did not just capture attention. No, Spectacular Bid commanded attention, and he got it just by running.
After he finished racing, Spectacular Bid went to stud. Stationed at Claiborne Farm for a $150,000 stud fee, he actually did well in his first years, siring several stakes winners like Spectacular Joke and Spectacular Love. He continued producing stakes caliber horses, but his time as a stallion fell short of the expectations of many. "He had been bred to some good mares his early years," said Claiborne Farm's Seth Hancock. "But he didn't get the type of runner for breeders to keep sending those good mares to him." Bid later went to Milfer Farm in New York, where he had "strong support while he was here," according to Dr. Jonathan Davis, the owner of the farm. "Plenty of breeders liked the fact that he threw a versatile horse, but he didn't get any respect from commercial breeders."
He may not have been a sire of sires, but Spectacular Bid still managed, at least to some, to instill his versatility into his offspring.
A fan favorite for decades, Spectacular Bid was famously dubbed by Delp, as "the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle." While that depends on who you ask, there is no question that Spectacular Bid is among the greatest Thoroughbreds to ever walk into a starting gate.
Sources: Lowman, Chelsea. "Preakness Memories: Spectacular Bid, Greatest to Look Through a Bridle." The Racing Biz, May 10, 2019 https://www.theracingbiz.com/2019/05/10/preakness-memories-spectacular-bid-greatest-to-look-through-a-bridle/
Richards, Kate. "Spectacular Bid: The Eastern Shore Horse." Past the Wire. May 12, 2019 https://pastthewire.com/spectacular-bid-the-eastern-shore-horse/
Schmitz, David. "Spectacular Bid: How Good a Stallion?" The Blood-Horse, June 24, 2003 https://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/articles/181281/spectacular-bid-how-good-a-stallion
Spectacular Bid Profile: Horse Racing Nation https://www.horseracingnation.com/horse/Spectacular_Bid#