I have a feeling Spectacular Bid is a great, great horse," mused Trainer Bud Delp the other evening. "He should be undefeated now and I know he'll never be beaten again. But the problem is, having never had a great horse before, how can I be sure he is?"
One way to tell is for the horse to simply defeat the principal opposition, as Spectacular Bid did early in October at Belmont Park in the Champagne, the country's premier race for 2-year-olds. A more convincing way is to annihilate the principal opposition and leave them gasping for breath, as Spectacular Bid did last Saturday in the Laurel Futurity. The colt's 8½-length victory, which earned him $84,237 and raised his winnings to $324,484, was accomplished in a track-record 1:41[3/5] for the 1[1/16]-mile race.
But money winnings and race times seem not to matter so much now that Spectacular Bid, with six wins in eight starts, has established himself as the overwhelming winter book choice to win the 1979 Kentucky Derby. "If I owned any of these other horses," gloats Delp, "I wouldn't want to break their hearts by letting them on the same track with Spectacular Bid."
That's too strong, of course. Or is it? Is Spectacular Bid—the spirited gray son of Bold Bidder, whose main claim to fame thus far is that he's a son of Bold Ruler—a super colt? Does he rank with Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat? The issue is clouded by Delp, who has talked so lavishly about the real or imagined wonders of Spectacular Bid that it's hard to separate promise and performance from sheer oratory. A typical Delpism: "Here's how I see it. He'll win everything in Florida next year, which will mean the shortest Derby field in history. Then we come home to Baltimore for the Preakness. Nobody will want to try us here. Then we go to the Belmont, where there will be a few who doubt, foolishly, that he can go a mile and a half. Let's face it. I've got a straight flush. And it's just not often that somebody else gets a higher one."
Delp deals mostly in claiming horses and says he has claimed at least 1,000 since 1962. "But I've never had a horse to really talk about before," he says. "I think this horse is a freak." Ronnie Franklin, the apprentice jockey who rides Spectacular Bid, agrees, saying, "It's like having two horses under me."
For more than a decade Delp has often been among the nation's 10 leading trainers for races won; recently he frequently has appeared among the top five. But he works largely in Maryland. Indeed, although he has started approximately 10,000 horses and has won almost 2,000 races, only 15 times has he entered a horse in New York and he has won there only twice. Thus, since he hasn't been doing it in New York, there is a suspicion that he really hasn't been doing it. The most attention Delp has gotten heretofore was in 1963 when his barn burned at Laurel, and 30 of his 32 racehorses died. The next day he began claiming again.
Now with a 70-horse stable, Delp has been earning between $150,000 and $200,000 a year for himself, and Spectacular Bid is helping his financial picture, because Delp gets 10% of everything the horse wins. "If this colt is worth $10 million, then I'm a millionaire," he says. "It feels gooooood." Claiming horses is the ultimate act of putting your money where your mouth is, because a man like Delp is betting that he can do better with a horse than the man who previously owned him. Delp does. "When I get up in the morning to go to work," he says, "I'm really getting up to go play."
He'll play at the betting windows, too. For years he has bet $50, $100, maybe $200. Once he bet $600. But now that Spectacular Bid has come along and Delp has become so vocal, he is betting more and more money to back up his utterings. At the Champagne, he told his brother Richard to bet $5,000 to win on Spectacular Bid. This was a heady wager, considering many felt Spectacular Bid might be only third best in the field—behind General Assembly, an impressive son of Secretariat, and Tim the Tiger, the Calumet Farm hope.
Why did Delp do it? "Because I figured the odds would be 6 to 1 and I felt in the mood to win $30,000." But, alas, Delp thinks the fact he talked so much about Spectacular Bid's prowess drove the odds down to 5 to 2 and thus he netted only $12,000. "I know my neck is sticking out," says Delp. "But let's face it. When you have a colt as good as Spectacular Bid, you're not supposed to lose."
Spectacular Bid was purchased for $37,000 as a yearling by Harry and Teresa Meyerhoff of Easton, Md., and their son Tom, 25, at the 1977 Keeneland Fall Sale. He was considered, as horsemen always say, "just a nice horse." There wasn't much in his background to suggest more, since Bold Bidder had been an average sire. Even less noteworthy was the dam, Spectacular, who had career earnings of $16,633. Spectacular Bid was her first foal. Still, Tom Meyerhoff insists all of his family was thinking Triple Crown when the hammer dropped. As he says, "Anytime you spend more than $20,000, if you don't dream, why be in this business?" But does Harry Meyerhoff, the one-third owner whose voice clearly weighs more than that, fantasize about a Derby winner? "It's not a fantasy," says the retired Baltimore real-estate developer. He already has reserved hotel rooms in Louisville for next May.
The Meyerhoffs are whimsical. Their racing colors are black and blue, to symbolize how racing can beat up on an owner. But from early on, Spectacular Bid had the look of a bully who would be on the giving rather than receiving end.
He won laughing in his first two starts. Then on Aug. 2 he was beaten in the slop at Monmouth when he didn't like the mud flying up and hitting him in the stomach. Next time out, against a pedestrian field in the Dover Stakes at Delaware Park, he got boxed in. Recalls Delp, "We knew we had a hell of a horse but we couldn't prove it to anyone but ourselves."
When the colt was shipped to New York for the Champagne, it was agreed that a New York jockey should be on him. Jorge Velasquez rode the colt to victory—2¾ lengths ahead of General Assembly and 6¼ lengths in front of Tim the Tiger—and booted him to a narrow victory at the Meadowlands 11 days later. But Delp was furious, for he says Velasquez would not follow his instructions about pacing the horse.
For the Laurel Futurity, he took Velasquez off and put Franklin back on. In 55 runnings of the race an apprentice jock had never won, and to many observers it seemed as if Delp might have a death wish. First, he could have ended Spectacular Bid's year after the Champagne and been assured of his colt being voted the 2-year-old champ. But if he must race at Laurel, why not get Bill Shoemaker or Darrel McHargue? (Delp had earlier tried to get Steve Cauthen but was shunned.) Why the 18-year-old Franklin? Says Delp, "He likes the horse and the horse likes him."
On the eve of the race Delp gave Franklin his instructions. "In the stretch, I want to prove that this is a super horse," he said, "so let him go a little. If we do that, the others won't be wanting to chase us so much next year."
Spectacular Bid was bet down to the 4-to-5 favorite, but there was a lingering suspicion that General Assembly might be the one. However, the General's trainer, LeRoy Jolley, seemed to be readying an alibi before the race. "Remember, the prime objectives for these 2-year-olds are not this year," he said.
Long before the four-horse field reached the quarter pole, Spectacular Bid was in command with a fluid, rhythmic, effortless stride.
The only challenge came at the turn at the head of the stretch when Cauthen urged General Assembly alongside Spectacular Bid, and Franklin thinks the General may have gotten his nose ahead for a moment. "But then I asked my horse to go," he says, "and he went." Abruptly, Spectacular Bid was three, five, seven lengths ahead. Ultimately, it was 8½, but it could have been 10 or 12 because Franklin only tapped the colt lightly on the left side to keep his interest.
General Assembly raced well and had no excuses. Third was Clever Trick, 20½ lengths back, and fourth, also with no excuses, was Tim the Tiger. Said Cauthen afterward, "It was no contest." And Tim's trainer, John Veitch, who had contended beforehand that Spectacular Bid had not dominated his class, changed his mind. "He is now dominating," he said. Delp, continuing to put up but not shut up, bet a $500 exacta and won $1,000.
But while Spectacular Bid has blown away his opposition for the moment, there's no reason to think that General Assembly might not regroup and be back strong in 1979. As for Tim, maybe he is just tired. Flying Paster looks good in California. Maybe Spectacular Bid will go sour. But for now, Delp is talking. "All I want next year is the whole thing," he says, "the Triple Crown and everything else."