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 1:46⅗ 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.
The race of the decade had suddenly become the race of the year, if that—a Belmont Stakes revisited with the addition of some fine older horses. And there arose in New York hurricane David, both of them. One rained, the other roared. David Whiteley, the trainer of Coastal, figured his only chance to win would be if Bid and Affirmed got locked in an early speed duel, one never letting the other get away. That would set the race up for a stretch runner like Coastal.
"It's unsportsmanlike," Whiteley said of the decision not to run Affirmed. "If you have any backbone and consideration for racing, you run the horse. They've had it pretty easy. The horse is obviously at his best. He went past Forego and Kelso in money-winning. If he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with them, he ought to do a little bit of what they did."
Which is to carry weight against all comers and not shy from adversity. But the nine-pound spread was too much, Barrera said. His main fear was that Affirmed would have to run every step of the nine furlongs, because the distance is run around only one sweeping turn and does not permit a horse a breather. He questioned how much horse he would have left for the upcoming Woodward Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup, both weight-for-age races in which Affirmed would have to carry only 126 pounds to Bid's 121.
"I had to make a decision," Barrera says. "I represent Affirmed; I train Affirmed; I love Affirmed. I think I am doing the right thing for Affirmed. People think he has to run and run and run to be champion. He can't pass one race?"
Delp said he could not fault the man. "He's afraid of my horse," Delp claimed. "He's got reason. I'd be afraid too."
The debate that grew out of Barrera's decision was a lively one. It also raised the old issue of whether there should be such things as handicaps. "This is the only major sport that handicaps its stars," said trainer Roger Laurin. "Do they tell Jack Nicklaus he has to give three a side? Would that be fair? Would they make Babe Ruth swing a bat five pounds heavier? "
Others thought as trainer John Russell did. "I can understand how Laz feels about his horse," he said. "He has a romance with him. But if every time a guy scratched his champion because he thought he had too much weight, we wouldn't get a chance to see too many champions."
By post time last Saturday, the debate had subsided, and all that remained was for Bid to do his number. He did it superbly, leaving only the unanswered question of what might have happened had Affirmed been in the field. "Instead of putting The Shoe on Bid," quipped Jacinto Vasquez, General Assembly's rider, "Delp should have put another pin in him."
The victory, worth $180,000, pushed Bid's 3-year-old earnings ($962,183) past Affirmed's of last year. "I was aware of that," said Harry Meyerhoff. "Like Lincoln, I write things on the backs of envelopes."
And now it is on to the 1¼-mile Woodward, if Bid recovers well from the Marlboro. If he passes the Woodward, he and Affirmed would meet in the Gold Cup at a mile and a half, the only distance at which Bid has lost this year. "If Affirmed stays in his stall, I'm Horse of the Year," said Delp. "He'd better come out of his stall. I'm looking forward to running against him. I wish he'd been out there today. He'd have gone to the front, opened two lengths, and Bid would have gone after him at the half-mile pole. Then we hook up and run home. I think the result would have been the same. We danced a big dance today. We danced one dance; maybe we should let him dance one alone in the Woodward. Meet him in the Gold Cup. Mile and a half's no problem. The pin beat him in the Belmont. I'm gonna prove it in the Gold Cup. I'm gonna prove it."