06/10/2003 11:00PM

Four-year-old Bid was pitch-perfect


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If Saturday's $400,000 Californian at Hollywood Park is going to live up to its glorious past, something will have to emerge from the woodwork. The field is blue collar from top to bottom - a tribute to equal opportunity - offering no threat to embellish a list of past winners that includes Swaps, Dr. Fager, Cougar, Affirmed, Precisionist, and Sunday Silence. Did I mention Dr. Fager?

As Californians go, the 1980 running wasn't much to brag about either. Basically, it was an elaborate field exercise featuring Spectacular Bid and six flinching targets. Winning by 4 1/2 lengths in track-record time under 130 pounds was pretty much the least he could do.

Still, any race that attracted Spectacular Bid was a cause for celebration. He was a pleasure to behold, a real aficionado's dream, with a no-frills manner of delivering maximum effort with deceptive ease. Mechanically, he was a freak.

Spectacular Bid is dead now, at a ripe and snowy 27. But that won't stop his fans from wallowing in fond memories. They have a right.

In the last 50 years, there have been only three pitch-perfect campaigns turned in by older horses at the top of the game. Tom Fool's 10-0 in 1953 included the Carter, the Met Mile, the Suburban, and the Brooklyn. Cigar's 10-0 in 1995 ended with the Breeders' Cup Classic and came at the heart of his 16 straight victories. Spectacular Bid was 9-0, sealed with a walkover in the final start of his 30-race career.

At the end of the day, it was the six races he ran at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in 1980 that will define Spectacular Bid forever. First came the Malibu, then the San Fernando, then the mile-and-a-quarter world's record in the Strub Stakes, an in-your-face tour-de-force that trainer Buddy Delp always said cost him two extra pounds for the Santa Anita Handicap.

But he had to do it. He had to tell Bill Shoemaker to go out and uncork one. How else could he shut down the trash talk emanating from the Flying Paster camp, suddenly emboldened by their mere length-and-a-half loss in the San Fernando? Spectacular Bid's 10-furlong record, by the way, still stands.

"I never want to see a horse like that again," said Gordon Campbell, Flying Paster's trainer. "Unless I've got him."

While the Strub was breathtaking, it was the 1980 Santa Anita Handicap that remains the finest race Spectacular Bid ever ran.

"It was his best," Shoemaker said. Okay, that's settled.

The cool March day dawned innocently enough, with cloudy skies bearing only the mildest chance of rain. Then, around lunchtime, a bitter storm began whipping down from the mountains, accompanied by a driving, icy deluge. Streets were deserted. Ships returned to port. Five went postward for a purse of $350,000, and Spectacular Bid, oblivious to the torrent, won by a comfortable five in conditions that could only be called miserable.

"It wasn't too miserable riding him," Shoemaker said. "He was all business out there. He always had other horses in trouble, because you could move him and stop him two or three different times, gearing him down whenever you wanted to. Only great horses are able to do that sort of thing."

Shoe and Spectacular Bid collaborated twice more at Hollywood Park - winning the Mervyn LeRoy and the Californian - before heading east to win at Arlington and Monmouth. Delp politely declined the 136-pound handicap assignment for the Marlboro Cup, noting that Mrs. Delp raised no dummies, and pointed instead for the Woodward at weight-for-age on Sept. 20, 1980.

Four were entered and three were scratched. The last one out was Winter's Tale, a thoroughly capable Rokeby Stable gelding who already had won the Suburban, Brooklyn, and Bid-less Marlboro.

"He was a very nice horse," said his trainer, Mack Miller. "I wanted him to stay fresh. So we took him out of the barn that morning, gave him to the pony boy, and he buck-jumped and threw his back out. Never had done that before. He was just feeling good, I'm sure."

Whether or not Winter's Tale could have challenged Spectacular Bid at level weights remains open to speculation. Miller, ever the gentleman, merely noted, "I was skeptical."

So American racing had its first walkover in a major event since Citation scared everyone away in the 1948 Pimlico Special. With weight and jockey up, Spectacular Bid had only to break from the gate and gallop the course. Still, Shoemaker was leaving nothing to chance.

"He could have grabbed a quarter and stumbled," the rider said. "And since he had to go all the way around to collect the purse, I told the outrider at the gate to stand a little farther down the track. That way, if for some reason he lost me, they could catch him and bring him back. Then we could try it over again."

Shoemaker was kidding. Of course he was. Shoe knows better than anyone that the lasting legacy of Spectacular Bid is simple and direct. As a 4-year-old, the consummate pro, he was the kind of horse who never made a mistake.