The purse money had been put up, all $549,000 of it, making last Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park the richest thoroughbred race ever held in this country. Eight starters were listed on the program, and the early betting on the 1½-mile race totaled $398,132, of which big plungers had put $390,895 on Spectacular Bid to show. But through the backstretch and in the grandstand and clubhouse during the early afternoon there was a feeling of uneasiness. Rumors and counterrumors flew. Something strange was afoot, something was going wrong, the center wasn't holding. Spectacular Bid was in some sort of trouble, and those closest to him seemed confused and bewildered.
At 8:30 a.m. on race day, owner Harry Meyerhoff was sipping a bottle of Heineken's outside Bid's barn. He said, "This will probably be the horse's last race. He doesn't have anything more to prove. Naturally, we'd like to see him become the first horse to win $3 million, and a victory in the Gold Cup would put him over that. But he's already been syndicated for $22 million and is due in Kentucky the first week of November to start his career at stud. He has to rate as one of the greatest horses ever, because he was the best there was as a 2-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old. They want Bid for a race at the Meadowlands in two weeks and also want to parade him at Churchill Downs before he goes to stud. I really can't think about those things now. He can beat the Gold Cup field, that I know."
Some 15 minutes later Bud Delp, the colt's trainer, leaned against the side of Bid's barn and made a statement that, considering the circumstances, was nothing less than mysterious. "I have heard all the rumors about my horse not running in the Gold Cup," he said, "but the rumors aren't true. He went out on the racetrack this morning and galloped perfectly. I would say he was even money to start." Even money?
At 9 a.m. Dr. Manny Gilman, the examining veterinarian for the New York Racing Association, arrived at Bid's barn to certify the soundness of the horse for competition. Gilman looked into Bid's stall and saw the horse standing with his forelegs in a tub of ice, a normal race-day procedure to tighten tendons. "I can't examine the horse now," he said. "I'll come back when these people have their act together."
An hour later Gilman returned. This time Bid's handlers refused to let him examine the horse without authorization from Delp. Gilman was angry. "I have nothing to say," he declared. "I'll go to the stewards and tell them that I tried to do my job twice and was refused. After that, I don't know what will happen."
What happened, of course, was that the rumors multiplied. Finally, a little after 4 p.m., Delp announced that Spectacular Bid was being scratched and that his career as a racehorse had ended. The announcement drew hoots and boos from the small crowd of 24,035. Delp is a man who thrives on controversy, a trainer who loves to stand at center stage and entertain an audience. "It's over now," he said, "but it was a great ride with Bid. The problem is with his left front ankle. He has had a problem with the ankle since he was a 2-year-old. I would say he's 98% of himself right now, and Bid at 98% could beat the field that's entered for the Gold Cup with no problems. But he's not 100%, and I'm not going to send him out on the racetrack when he's not 100%. It's as simple as that. The decision to scratch him was mine."
Delp then expanded on the life and times of Bid's trainer. "There are a lot of things people don't know about training," he said. "I have been with this horse for three years, almost day and night. We've been across the country together: Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, Illinois. A trainer gets to know his racehorse very well under those conditions, and I know Bid. He's not right today. When you talk about pressure you don't really know what it is until you have a horse like Bid to train. Hell, it costs $3,800 a day just to keep him on the racetrack when you add up the insurance premiums and the other stuff. But Big Daddy was everything a racehorse is supposed to be. Let anyone who wants to knock him knock him. And anybody who does is a damned fool."
What is there left to say about Spectacular Bid? Start by saying he was a running machine, a gray streak that had the highest winning percentage (87%) of the 25 runners who have earned $1 million or more. Bid won 26 of 30 races and carried his banner the length and breadth of the land: to Pimlico, Monmouth, Delaware Park, Atlantic City, Belmont, Laurel, Keystone, Gulfstream Park, Hialeah, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, The Meadowlands, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Arlington.
Along the way he set eight track records and had winning streaks of 12 and nine, exceptional achievements in this day. Bid didn't just beat his opponents, he humiliated them. He was so sound that knowledgeable horsemen couldn't believe any animal could handle the amount of training and racing he endured. Rarely was the horse out of training for any length of time. This year Bid went nine for nine to become the first handicap horse since Tom Fool back in 1953 to go through a handicap campaign undefeated.
It has been said of Bid that he didn't carry enough weight, that tracks around the nation were so anxious to lure him that they lowered the weights assigned him just so he would show up. Yet consider this: Affirmed carried 130 pounds or more just twice; Spectacular Bid did it five times and won those races by a stunning average of six lengths.
Last month he became the subject of a big debate when his connections didn't enter him in the Marlboro Cup after he had been assigned 136 pounds, 12 more than Secretariat carried in that same race in 1973 and eight more than Seattle Slew lugged two years ago. Granted, Forego carried 137 pounds when winning the Marlboro in 1976, but Forego was a gelding and thus had no prospects at stud that could be shattered by a breakdown. "Weight will stop a freight train," the saying goes. The only thing Bid didn't accomplish was to win at 1½ miles. He lost the Belmont Stakes to Coastal last year, and the following day it was announced that a safety pin had worked its way into a hoof before the race. In his only other attempt at 1½ miles Bid lost to Affirmed by three-quarters of a length as a 3-year-old running against a 4-year-old.
Spectacular Bid retires with record alltime earnings of $2,781,607, a grand return on Harry, Teresa and Tom Meyerhoff's original investment of $37,000 at the fall Keeneland yearling sale of 1977—a spectacular bid certainly because that year the average price of a yearling by Bold Bidder was $84,750. As Bid went from triumph to triumph the price of sons and daughters of Bold Bidder, his sire, went higher and higher, and this year a buyer had to spend an average of $133,500 for a Bold Bidder at auction. A dozen were sold.
Delp was rewarded handsomely by the Meyerhoffs for his handling of the horse. "Rather than take a breeding share in Bid," he says, "I took the money and ran. It was $1.5 million, and I have it spread out over a number of years. I just don't know that much about horse breeding and couldn't see myself seriously involved in that end of the business. But it won't be long before I'll be getting the sons and daughters of Big Daddy to train. I look forward to that day."
For a 3-year-old to beat a 4-year-old in a weight-for-age race is a rarity, but with Bid out of the Gold Cup, Temperence Hill did just that. He followed a very slow pace and galloped off to win by 5½ lengths in the woefully slow time of 2:30⅕ leaving John Henry and Ivory Hunter in his wake.
Temperence Hill is a born plodder, a horse that relishes long distances. He also seems to be a horse with a marvelous instinct for winning at exactly the right time for his backers. In June he won the Belmont at odds of 53-1; in August he ran to victory in the Travers at Saratoga at 4-1. He wasn't favored in the Gold Cup, either, that prominence falling to John Henry, probably the nation's top grass horse. This time Temperence Hill went off at 2-1.
One of the most interesting things about him is that while he hasn't won two races in a row in his last 10 outings, he has won $830,452 this year. The next time Temperence Hill runs he'll be gunning for the $300,000 first prize in the $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs on Oct. 18.
The Gold Cup ended New York's so-called "Championship Series." With Bid scratching, the series certainly wasn't what it was intended to be, and the reason for that probably lies in the fact that the first of the three races, the Marlboro, is a handicap followed by the Woodward and Gold Cup, both weight-for-age races. The order should be reversed, with the handicap race last to ensure both big fields and interesting competition.
The lasting memory of the series, of course, is from the Woodward, in which Bid "walked over," his presence in the entries so awesome that nobody dared run against him. He "walked" in 2:02[2/5] for the 1¼ miles, quicker than Kelso had won the race against competition in 1962. Bid thus went out of racing in solitary gray splendor with nobody behind him and certainly nobody in front of him. Said Bud Delp late Saturday afternoon, "Maybe that was the way the end was meant to be."