The Saturday racing card at Santa Anita had been over for an hour, and 48-year-old Bill Shoemaker was standing in the Director's Room of the Turf Club with a drink in his hand, looking up at a television monitor showing tapes of the day's races.
Heavy flecks of gray now dominate Shoemaker's black hair but otherwise his appearance remains the same. He was dressed perfectly, with his dark slacks creased and his gray jacket looking as if it had come from the dry cleaner only moments before. "It seems that on days when I'm riding a good horse in a stake, other things fall in line for me," he said. "Adrenaline? Maybe it flows faster, I really don't know. I just seem to have days when everything seems to go right. Today was one of those days."
Shoemaker watched himself win the sixth race and then the seventh. "The seventh was one hell of a horse race," he said. "Three of us battled through the stretch, and I won it between horses. It was close, but I knew I had it by about a head." The television set flickered and Shoemaker looked up at it. "This race here," he said of the eighth, which he had won on Spectacular Bid, "is a lot of fun. This horse that I'm riding here can really run."
What is there left to say of Shoemaker? He rode brilliantly in the 1940s, '50s, '60s and '70s and could well have his best year ever in 1980, because he is riding the best horse extant. By winning the San Fernando Stakes last weekend, Bid affirmed what people have long thought: he is a money machine, a charcoal-gray wonder of ice and iron which, when right, can dominate his opposition and turn the most important races in the country into little more than canters through the park. Shoe is a money machine, too. The San Fernando was his 200th stakes win at Santa Anita. It also was the 148th time Shoe had won a $100,000 race, and he now has 7,777 victories, including 782 stakes.
January 28, 1980
Bid and Shoe went off in the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile San Fernando, the first 100-grand stakes of the California season, at the incredible odds of 1 to 98. They faced only three opponents, and at the head of the stretch the crowd of 43,799 was certain it was about to witness one of the biggest upsets of any racing year. Bid had virtually walked out of the starting gate and been taken back to last place down the backstretch before making up a 10-length deficit and reclaiming the lead on a tiring racetrack. Once he was in front, Spectacular Bid started to dawdle, and a very good horse named Flying Paster came surging at him on the outside. Flying Paster picked up five lengths, moving to Spectacular Bid's right flank, and appeared ready to whiz past Bid until Shoemaker gave his mount a couple of gentle lefthanded stings with the whip. Bid (1:48) drew away to win by 1½ lengths, with the last horse in the field—Timbo—nearly 50 lengths behind.
If Spectacular Bid gets any better than he has been in California this winter, a special wing will have to be built for him at racing's Hall of Fame. He has started twice, won twice and moved into fourth place on the alltime money list with earnings of $1,774,917. His first two races, however, have been mere preludes to more important events ahead, which will be run for purses ranging from $200,000 to $400,000. Bid was bet so heavily last Saturday that in winning he caused an $85,026.56 minus pool, because there wasn't enough money wagered on the other starters to cover the minimum $2.10 payoff. Only once in history has there been a larger minus pool—in 1966 when a 2-year-old named Tumble Wind ran at Hollywood Park—but the most interesting fact about all this is that Flying Paster, the winner of the Santa Anita and Hollywood Derbies in 1979, went off at 8 to 1 as the second choice.
Spectacular Bid has now won 19 of 23 races and only once in his career has he been passed in the stretch. Even on that occasion—Bid's loss to Coastal in the Belmont Stakes—he may have had a valid excuse in the much-discussed "safety pin incident," Bid having reportedly stepped on one the morning of the race. The big debate in racing now is not whether any horse can beat Bid but if anyone can truly warm him up.
This year and last, racing has been blessed by the fact that outstanding 3-year-olds remained around to run at age 4. Last year Affirmed proved himself to be one of the best horses of all time; this year Bid will probably do the same. But will that accomplishment be worth it? The other day at Santa Anita, Harry Meyerhoff, the owner of Spectacular Bid along with his wife, Teresa, and his son, Tommy, addressed the manifold economic considerations involved in running Bid as a 4-year-old. "For 1980 alone it costs more than $1 million for injury and fertility insurance," said Meyerhoff. "And that money has already been paid. It also costs a lot to keep our stable up. Is it worth it? It is to us. I happen to love horse racing, and while I'm an owner, I'm basically still a fan. I want other people to get a chance to see Bid. Racing fans deserve the chance to see outstanding horses run. We've decided to run Bid, and he should have a good year. But I'm not going to make much money running him. Actually, I'll probably lose money."
Meyerhoff has an excellent sense of humor, and he showed it last Saturday at Santa Anita. Before the running of the San Fernando, the Meyerhoffs were having lunch at the track when Art Rooney, the 78-year-old owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was brought around for introductions. Rooney owns horses himself (Shamrock Stable) and got the money to buy the Steelers when he won a big bet at Saratoga many years ago. "I like your horse very much," Rooney said to Meyerhoff, "and I'm glad you are running him as a 4-year-old. I hope you win today, but I don't want to bother you at lunch. The best of luck to you and Seattle Slew."
Meyerhoff wished Rooney and his Steelers the best in the Super Bowl, and the old football man walked off. A few minutes later Tim Rooney, Art's son, approached Meyerhoff. "My dad is terribly embarrassed that he called your horse Seattle Slew," Tim said, "and he wants to apologize. He hopes you'll forgive him. If it wasn't the week of the Super Bowl, he'd never make a mistake like that."
Suddenly the pixie came out in Meyerhoff. "Please tell your father," he said, "that I hope he has the happiest day of his life tomorrow. And also that I'd love to have Seattle Slew, too."
Spectacular Bid is turning out to be a tremendous drawing card at Santa Anita. His first two races there brought out more than 90,000 people, and his next two starts should do even better—even though they'll also be very bad betting propositions. When Meyerhoff and trainer Bud Delp were told that their horse went off at 1 to 98, both seemed stunned. "One to 98," Meyerhoff said, "I didn't know there was such a figure. Things like that can make you nervous."
By winning the San Fernando and surpassing Round Table on the alltime money-winning list, Spectacular Bid moved into fourth, behind Affirmed, Kelso and Forego. Bid now needs $618,901 to catch No. 1 Affirmed, and Delp has no doubts about his plans. "Our intention is to establish a new earnings record," he says. "We figured the way to accomplish that was to start the year in California because the purses are excellent." Indeed they are. Even without competing on the grass, Bid could still run in races that have purses totaling $1,675,000, and that's only through the $400,000 Hollywood Gold Cup in June.
"Spectacular Bid will run 11 or 12 times this year," Delp says. "The Strub is next, then the Santa Anita Handicap and at least two races at Hollywood Park, probably one in Chicago, maybe one at Delaware Park and the Marlboro Cup, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont in the fall. Should all go according to schedule. Bid's last race will be in the Meadowlands Cup in New Jersey in the fall."
By that time he should have broken the money record by a wide margin. Affirmed started nine times in his 4-year-old campaign, and the only two defeats he suffered came in the Malibu and San Fernando. Spectacular Bid's Malibu on Jan. 5 was a smashing race, in which he won just as he pleased in track-record time of 1:20 for seven furlongs, and he missed the world record for the distance by only [1/5] second.
Delp is a much more subdued man than he was a year ago when he was leading the world in outrageous quotes and polyester clothing. "I love California," he says. "I've got a house about 10 minutes from Santa Anita, and it has a heated pool, a fireplace and a Jacuzzi. Hell, even Bid seems laid back. He's put on about 100 pounds since last year, and he knows who he is: Big Daddy. Now he's won his first two races out here, and they were just like preseason football games. They were nice to win, but the big things are ahead. I want to win 50 races with all my horses between Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, and that's pretty hard to do. [Last year only three trainers accomplished it.] I've been claiming a lot of horses [$155,000 worth] to build up a stable out here. And well if I don't win those 50 races. I'm not going to roll over and die. I know that Bid will win his races. He won the San Fernando so easily that I could run him back in four days. Spectacular Bid does the talking for me now."
Well, some of the time.