Updated on 09/17/2011 10:42AM

Last link to a golden decade

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WASHINGTON - Until his death from a heart attack on Monday, Spectacular Bid was the last link to the so-called decade of champions, the 1970's, which produced the most extraordinary concentration of great Thoroughbreds in American racing history.

The names of some of them - Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed - have been in the news lately because they are the last three winners of the Triple Crown. When Funny Cide lost the Belmont Stakes and missed his chance to join the elite, he verified that the Triple Crown always manages to thwart horses who aren't among the greats of all time.

But the outcome of the 1979 Triple Crown series was an injustice to Spectacular Bid, who fully deserved to have his name on a list with Secretariat and the others. Indeed, without the blemish of his Belmont Stakes defeat, Bid's overall record would have been better than that of any of 1970's superstars, supporting trainer Bud Delp's famous assertion that this was "the greatest horse who ever looked through a bridle."

Spectacular Bid came into the Belmont with a 12-race winning streak. He had demolished his competition in both the Derby and the Preakness. The only two losses of his life had occurred in sprints early in his career. He appeared unbeatable. When he finished third behind Coastal and Golden Act, his poor showing prompted questions that have never been answered definitively. Was a pin to blame? Or was his jockey the culprit?

A few hours before the race, Spectacular Bid stepped on a large safety pin that penetrated half an inch into his left front foot. Delp hoped the injury wouldn't affect his colt, and didn't say anything about the incident at the time. When Bid had been defeated and Delp blamed the safety pin, some skeptics thought he was fabricating an excuse.

But Bid had one undeniable excuse: Ron Franklin's ride. Delp had loyally stuck with the young rider even though he had delivered some embarrassing performances aboard the champion colt. Before the Belmont, jockey Angel Cordero Jr. tried to intimidate Franklin; in one unimportant race Cordero slammed into a horse ridden by Franklin as he came out of the starting gate. Franklin was evidently rattled by the time of the Belmont. He delivered a panicky, foolish ride, gunning Spectacular Bid to chase an 85-1 shot in the early stages of the 1 1/2-mile race, and Bid uncharacteristically tired in the stretch.

Was it the pin or the ride that beat Spectacular Bid that day? "Both," Delp said Tuesday. "Ronnie rode a terrible race. Pathetic! If Bill Shoemaker had been on the horse, he wins - no doubt. But I think [Spectacular Bid] still would have won had the pin not gone in his foot. That was the only race where a horse passed him in the stretch."

Franklin never rode the horse again, and Spectacular Bid never again ran a bad race. His only loss thereafter came in the fall of his 3-year-old season, when the 4-year-old Affirmed - the lone speed horse in the field - beat him by less than a length in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

No Thoroughbred has ever had a better year than Bid did as a 4-year-old in 1980. He made nine starts and won them all. He broke a 26-year-old track record at Santa Anita by running seven furlongs in 1:20 flat. He ran 1 1/4 miles at Santa Anita in 1:57.80, setting an American record that still stands. At Hollywood Park he carried 130 pounds and broke another track record by running 1 1/8 miles in 1:45.80.

Retiring with a record of 26 wins in 30 starts, he was syndicated for stud duty for $22 million. A grandson of Bold Ruler, he was expected to carry on that great line of stallions. Delp thought he would spend the rest of his career winning important stakes races with Bid's offspring. But the horse was a stunning failure at stud and never sired a champion. He was exiled to a farm in Unadilla, N.Y., where he was standing for a paltry $3,500 fee before his death at 27.

His failure at stud did not detract from his racing legacy, but his Belmont loss did. "People are only going to remember that he was one of nine horses [since Affirmed] who won the Derby and Preakness and failed in the Belmont," Delp lamented.

Except for that defeat, Bid would have not only been a Triple Crown winner but also gone through his career without a single poor performance in an importance race (a distinction that Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed cannot claim). But Bid does retain one unquestioned distinction.

When he ran in 1979 and 1980, he might not have seemed so extraordinary, because he was part of a decade that produced three Triple Crown winners and other phenomenal horses such as Forego, Alydar, Ruffian, and Mr. Prospector. But 23 years have passed since his retirement, and America has still not seen a horse in the class of Spectacular Bid.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post