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.

May 09, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

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.

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