A Spectacular hero; Racing: It's been 20 years since Spectacular Bid stirred hometown pride by coming to Baltimore and winning the Preakness, and he still ranks among the greatest of racehorses.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

His coat, once a familiar charcoal-gray, has aged a ghostly white. It shimmers in the morning sun as the stallion grazes, tugging at the sweet spring grass.

Then a breeze kicks up, nostrils flare and Spectacular Bid charges off around his two-acre paddock, keeping close to the fence as if hugging the rail down the stretch.

Retirement agrees with the old racehorse, whose deeds dwarfed others in his day. Twenty years have passed since Spectacular Bid -- owned, trained and ridden by Marylanders -- won the first two legs of racing's Triple Crown, taking the state on a jingoistic joy ride and staking his claim to greatness.

In February, the Blood-Horse magazine rated the top 100 thoroughbreds of the century. "Bid" ranked No. 10, buoyed, no doubt, by a grueling campaign as a 4-year-old in which he won all nine of his starts, coast to coast.

"He won in the East, he won in the West -- he won all over the place," said Evan Hammonds, managing editor of the Blood-Horse. "He didn't have much down time between races, either, never a break like horses today."

Bid's iron-horse streak pushed him ahead of seven of the 11 Triple Crown winners, Hammonds said.

"His stamina moved him up dramatically in the ratings," he said. "People remember and respect that in a horse."

At 23, Spectacular Bid has everything an aging champion could want: a private groom, a sack of peppermints, a fawning public and an occasional roll in the hay.

"He swoons the ladies off their feet, both equine and human," said Dr. Jonathan Davis, owner of Milfer Farm in Unadilla, N.Y., where the horse now stands at stud. Alas, Spectacular Bid has never sired himself. He won 13 Grade I stakes races; his progeny have managed just one.

As a result, Bid's stud fee -- the cost of breeding a mare to the winner of the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes -- has plummeted from $150,000 in 1984 to a red-tag special of $3,500 today.

Once, he stood at Kentucky's Claiborne Farms, the Chippendale's of breeding. Now, Spectacular Bid services mares bred for dressage and show events, as well as thoroughbreds.

None of which matters to the stallion's fans, many of whom write and visit regularly. At least once a week, Bid receives admirers who beg strands of his mane or photographs of themselves beside him. The horse acquiesces, sidling over to the fence and mugging for cameras.

Once, Spectacular Bid's face graced magazine covers, bumper stickers, T-shirts. Now, the 10th-greatest racehorse of the century has his own Web site (www.milfer farms.com/stal1.htm).

"What he is," Davis said, "is an icon."

Bid's homecoming

May 7, 1979: At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a sinewy colt steps off a plane and onto a pedestal. Two days earlier, Spectacular Bid had captured the Kentucky Derby and the hearts of a nation. Baltimore prepares a hero's welcome for its prodigal four-legged son, who has come home to run in the Preakness.

Bid's owners -- Harry, Teresa and Tom Meyerhoff -- live in Easton; his trainer, Grover "Bud" Delp, in Laurel; the young rider, Ron Franklin, in Dundalk. As Bid's van arrives at Pimlico Race Course, a Dixieland band plays "Maryland, My Maryland."

For 12 days before the Preakness, the city revels in racing glory. Entrepreneurs hawk T-shirts and buttons trumpeting, "Flip Your Lid With Spectacular Bid." A jewelry store peddles tiny gold charms shaped like bridles and stirrups, calling them "Spectacular Bits."

Locals scramble to hobnob with the horse and his rider, Franklin, 19 -- a dropout-turned-busboy-turned-jockey. The Bid and The Kid, they call them. Franklin's old school, Patapsco High, forgives his early departure and holds a day in his honor. McDonald's asks him to grill burgers for charity. At JC Penney in Eastpoint Mall, fans queue up for three hours to get autographs from Franklin, who two years earlier cleaned tables at a fast-food joint on Holabird Avenue.

And the colt? Cameras whirring, Mayor William Donald Schaefer interrupts Bid's breakfast to proclaim him an honorary citizen of Baltimore, and presents him with a box of Hutzler's doughnuts. The animal never looks up from his stall, the New York Times reports, "but the mayor showed a fine set of teeth."

The highlight is Spectacular Bid's free public workout at Pimlico. More than 2,500 people brave a rainy Mother's Day morning to ogle their favorite colt since Unitas. 'The people's horse'

"Talk about hometown pride, that was it," said Charles "Chick" Lang, then Pimlico's general manager. "Bid's people would have put him in the Preakness parade, if asked. Mayor Schaefer could have ridden him down Howard Street.

"He was the people's horse. Certainly, he was all-Maryland."

Well, almost. Bred and born in Kentucky, Spectacular Bid came from modest stock. He was the first foal of Spectacular, a dappled, lop-eared mare with a piddling $16,000 in earnings, and Bold Bidder, a strapping bay son of the great Bold Ruler.

His mother's pedigree dogged the colt, who was rejected by one yearling sale and all, but ignored at another. At the 1977 Keeneland (Ky.) Fall Auction, he was stabled in the farthest barn when Harry Meyerhoff took notice: a muscular horse of average size with straight legs, strong shoulders and a magnificent rear.

"He had great hindquarters, the engine that pushes a horse on the track," said Meyerhoff, a Baltimore developer who'd retired to the Eastern Shore with his wife and son to race thoroughbreds.

Meyerhoff prepared to offer $60,000. He got the colt for $37,000.

It soon became clear the less-than-spectacular bid was a steal. "I felt like I had two horses under me," Franklin gushed after riding him for the first time.

'Born to be great'

The horse won seven of nine races as a 2-year-old, setting course records at Pimlico and Laurel and earning an Eclipse Award as racing's top newcomer.

"Bid was born to be great," said Delp, the trainer who'd recommended his purchase. "He was hard-boned, with legs as tough as tree stumps. Sick? Never.

"He had that fluid stride, dynamic speed and a reserve of energy. I marveled at what he could do -- and that he kept doing it."

Whisked south that winter to prep for the Triple Crown, Bid proved his mettle in the Florida Derby. Boxed in three times during that race, the colt had to pull up, downshift and change lanes on the fly. Having trailed by as many as 14 lengths, he won by 4 1/2.

"Bid had his own gears, with piston-like action," said Delp. "Most horses can make only one serious move during a race. He could make three."

As his talent became more apparent, Spectacular Bid was treated with deference every step of the way. Literally. Delp walked ahead of the horse at all times, removing even the tiniest pebble from his path. During workouts, a pony was kept beside Bid as a buffer against the threat of loose horses.

The colt took his status in stride. He received a doughnut each morning, snorting derisively if the treat was late. Daily exercise completed, Bid would nose some straw into a pillow and lie down for a snooze.

"Smartest horse I ever saw," Franklin said. "He was push-button to race, too. Sometimes, I felt like he was taking me for a ride."

On to Triple Crown bid

By the Kentucky Derby, Spectacular Bid had won 10 straight stakes races by a whopping 60 lengths. Bettors warmed to him, but the rest of the horsey set appeared standoffish. The colt's blue-collar entourage lacked the polish of past favorites. Harry Meyerhoff, who'd grown up a short walk from Pimlico, wore jeans and a heavy beard; his wife was a former barmaid. Franklin was a steelworker's son. And Delp won few converts with his flamboyant attire, incessant bragging and Ali-like quips ("He'll win by four and it could be more!").

"I never blew my own horn, only that of the horse," Delp said recently. "They didn't like us from the start. We weren't part of the so-called establishment -- just some hicks from down yonder who got lucky."

Convinced his horse would win, Delp timed the walk from the paddock to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.

Spectacular Bid left his mark there. Before the race, he kicked a hole in the paddock wall, then thundered to victory by nearly three lengths -- beating Flying Paster, a heralded California champion, and General Assembly, the first of Secretariat's sons to run for the roses.

"It's like driving a Rolls-Royce," Franklin said of his mount, who roared out of the pack with a half-mile left. "Let's go, Big Daddy," the jockey chirped, angling the gray horse outside of the leaders and patting his neck at the wire.

Bid's victory in the 1 1/4-mile Derby pushed his career winnings near $1 million and stirred talk of a third straight Triple Crown winner, the likes of Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed ('78).

The Preakness beckoned.

More than 72,000 Frisbee-throwing, disco-dancing fans converged on Pimlico for Spectacular Bid's homecoming, their fingers crossed. Not to worry. On Preakness Day, Jim Palmer pitched the Orioles into first place, the Washington Bullets clinched an NBA championship-series berth and a horse with Maryland tags clocked the second-fastest time in the history of the race. On a dull track, too.

Again, Bid hung back at the start, veered wide on the clubhouse turn and whooshed past the field in the backstretch to win by 5 1/2 lengths.

The colt ran so wide over the 1 3/16-mile track that horsemen speculated the tactic was Franklin's means of avoiding Angel Cordero, aboard Screen King. A feud had been building between them for months.

Challengers stood in awe of Bid's prowess. "My horse couldn't have beaten [Bid] if he had cut through the infield," said LeRoy Jolley, trainer of General Assembly.

"I no chase him anymore," said Luis Barrera, Screen King's trainer. "I try him twice, that's enough. He is one bad hombre."

Belmont proves elusive

The Belmont Stakes appeared to be Bid's for the taking. He led most of the 1 1/2-mile race, but tuckered out 660 yards from the finish. On the rail, a horse named Coastal galloped past and denied him the Triple Crown. Bid ran third.

Fans jeered, pelting Franklin with rolled-up programs. In the jockeys' room, Cordero grabbed a microphone and bellowed, "Unbeatable, huh? Well, every turkey has his Thanksgiving."

The next day, the colt's trainer offered a perplexed public his theory of what went wrong. Bid had stepped on a safety pin in his stall before the race, Delp said. Owner and jockey confirmed the story, though others scoffed, then as now.

"[Bid's handlers] found a needle in a haystack," one horseman said at the time.

"I never believed that stuff," Lang, Pimlico's longtime GM, said recently. "You could have driven a six-penny nail into that horse and it wouldn't have mattered. That's how tough he was."

Spectacular Bid raced one more season, a yeoman-like campaign in which he was named Horse of the Year. His swan song in the Woodward Stakes was a "walkover" -- a one-horse race -- when the challengers all scratched.

"No one would run against him at the end," Meyerhoff said.

The book on Bid: 26 victories in 30 starts. His earnings of $2,781,608 and syndication fee of $22 million were records at the time.

His progeny, none of them spectacular, have won more than 1,100 races.

"He's not been a bad sire; he just never reproduced himself," said Meyerhoff, who sent Bid to New York in an effort to jump-start his stud career nine years ago. "I guess he didn't have the right genes.

"For all that muscle, he was always so agile. I've never seen a picture of him, running, with any of his feet on the ground.

"How do you duplicate a horse like that?"

Race facts

Where: Pimlico Race Course

When: Saturday

Post time: 5:27 p.m.

Gates open: 8: 30 a.m.

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

Purse: $1 million

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Derby winner: Charismatic

Information: 410-542-9400

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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