02/17/2011 3:55AM

Spectacular Bid's 25th birthday - February 17, 2001


There's a quote in the movie Meet Joe Black that gets me every time.  Anthony Hopkins, when giving a speech on his birthday, says, almost more as a statement than a question:  "65 years.  Don't they go by in a blink?"

It’s hard to believe 10 years have passed since Spectacular Bid turned 25 and even harder to believe he was born 35 years ago. Some of my friends weren’t alive yet when 'The Bid' retired from racing. I was in college.

By the time I presented a cake to Spectacular Bid on February 17, 2001 - in celebration of his quarter-century - my college years were a distant memory. The grey stallion's racing days were the same.  He lived at Milfer Farm in New York and, there, he still attracted some mares and adoring fans.  It was a long way from his glory days but, oh, what glory days!

Many consider him the last truly great American racehorse. Some consider him the best they have ever seen, myself included. Young fans have never seen anything like him - nor are they likely to.

Spectacular Bid's trainer, Grover 'Buddy' Delp, called his charge “the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle."  The steel-grey colt did his best to live up to the moniker. Consider these stats: Spectacular Bid won 26 of 30 starts, including 23 stakes races (13 Grade Is). He set or equalled eight track records, broke a 30-year-old world record for 1 1/4 miles (1:57 4/5) and toted 130 or more pounds five times. He won from New York to California at distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to a mile and a quarter. He was the champion 2-year-old, champion 3-year-old, and at 4 he was the Horse of the Year and champion older horse.   Spectacular Bid finished his career in singularly beautiful style with a walkover in the 1980 Woodward.

Three of his four losses could be attributed to either inexperience (two races at 2) or a bad ride and an infamous safety pin incident (1979 Belmont Stakes). The fourth? Blame the Triple Crown winner Affirmed, one year Bid’s elder, for proving superior on 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup day.

If money talked, The Bid prompted screams. He earned a then-record $2,781,608 on the track and was syndicated for a then-record $22 million for stud.

In other words, he really earned his birthday cake.

Not that he cared for it. The 25-year-old, his coat still heavily flecked with black, grey and chestnut spots, snuffed at the cake for a moment and whisked up a few carrot ‘candles’ - ignoring the bran cake, sugar frosting and peppermint garnishes. Manager Joel Reach and his son Justin gently pushed the cake toward the champion and guided his soft grey nose toward the goal…but no dice. Bid realized I was no cook.

Perhaps he was just too chilled to eat. While it was comfortable in his barn, the wind chill outside was about ten below.  Although he had dried from a light sponge bath, he shivered a time or two.

With that photo op clearly over, and weather so cold it was uncomfortable, it didn't seem fair to ask for too much.  Justin must have wanted to slap me when I asked him to lead Bid out for a conformation shot, but he gamely obliged.

I wanted to record what the great racehorse looked like at 25.  He was grand.  His right front ankle, fused for years, didn’t match his left, but his body provided few hints of his age – no evident ribs, sunken features or swayed back.  His winter coat wasn't unusually thick for an older horse, and only the coat's color reflected his age - the once near-black colt was now a light grey stallion.

Bid knew that he was ‘all that’ and his patience sometimes had limits. He could nip or send out gentle warnings that he was a powerful stallion. But on this miserably cold winter's day in New York, with crunching snow underfoot and biting winds shifting his gold-traced mane and tail, Spectacular Bid stood patiently and proudly.

Spectacular Bid died two years later of a heart attack, on June 9, 2003, and he was buried near his Milfer Farm barn. The other titans of his era – Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed – had died before him. There has been no successor.

I remember February 17, 2001, as if it were last week rather than ten years ago.  And it has been nearly eight years since Spectacular Bid's death. Haven’t they gone by in a blink.