It was all right for Muhammad Ali to predict not only victories but also the round in which he would stop an opponent. Boxing is one thing, thoroughbred racing is another. The talk in this sport among the owners and trainers—at least in public—is usually very polite, very reserved, very genteel. Boasting is about as welcome as a shattered sesamoid.
So a lot of racing people are going to have to adjust to Grover (Buddy) Delp, who, among other things, has said this year, "Only an act of God can beat Spectacular Bid" and "I think he's the best horse who's ever looked through a bridle."
Delp, that paragon's trainer, also passes out buttons that say FLIP YOUR LID WITH SPECTACULAR BID. Last Saturday, before and after the $149,000 Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah, the button business was brisk.
So was Spectacular Bid. He won the Flamingo—his ninth consecutive stakes victory—by the whopping margin of a dozen lengths and returned a miserly win mutuel of $2.10. No horse had ever won a Flamingo by such a wide gap, nor had one ever returned so little on a $2 investment. Citation and Seattle Slew, for example, paid $2.40 when they won the Flamingo en route to winning Triple Crowns. It is rare to see a horse toy with his field the way Spectacular Bid did in the Flamingo, pulling away from seven opponents with one big run down the backstretch. When Bid got to the lead, he just seemed to go swoosh, and the Hialeah crowd began applauding him long before he even reached the top of the stretch. Nevertheless, according to Delp, the Flamingo was probably only the third-best race of the colt's stunning career.
"I didn't think any horse in the field could give Bid a challenge," Delp said following the race, "so I didn't work him hard and I don't think the race took anything out of him." Indeed, the Flamingo, one of the major races in a classic colt's life, turned out to be little more than a public workout witnessed by 23,157 people.
"I thought the Laurel Futurity and the Champagne Stakes last fall were his two best races, and I still think so," said Delp. "I didn't see anything in the Flamingo—and I don't see anything on the horizon—that can beat him. Bid is just a great racehorse. Now we'll take our act to Kentucky and get ready for the Derby. He'll run in the Bluegrass and then move on to Churchill Downs. I have no idea how many horses will try him in the Derby. I wouldn't think too many would bother to make the trip after what he did here."
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the 1979 Flamingo was the performance of Spectacular Bid's rider, 19-year-old Ron Franklin. In the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in early March, Franklin made enough mistakes for a dozen jockeys and was scolded furiously by Delp. Spectacular Bid still won, but Franklin was very close to being taken off Bid in favor of another rider. Owners Harry, Teresa and Tom Meyerhoff decided to stick with Franklin "because he fits the horse."
In the Flamingo, Franklin fit Spectacular Bid about as well as one could want. The colt broke from the outside post position, went four horses wide around the first turn and took the lead after half a mile. Before reaching the top of the stretch, Franklin hit Bid twice and then tapped the horse four more times through the stretch run. Like many horses, Spectacular Bid tends to loaf a little when not being seriously challenged, and after the fiasco in the Florida Derby, Franklin was not about to take any chances.
Franklin is still an inexperienced jockey, a kid who arrived at the stable gate at Pimlico three years ago looking for work as a hot-walker. He had never been on a horse and had only rarely gone to the racetrack. "Ain't never seen a Kentucky Derby," he says, "but I saw three Preaknesses. I saw Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. I know that Bid is better than those horses and all of 'em won the Triple Crown."
The day that Franklin arrived at the track just happened to be one of those days when Buddy Delp needed a hand. Franklin walked hots and mucked stalls and didn't even get on a horse for his first eight months with the big (68 horses) Delp operation. He finally rode a couple of horses during morning workouts, and then he spent four months learning to become a rider at the Middleburg (Va.) Training Center. The first time Delp put Franklin on a mount in a race the horse won.
Delp went through a great deal of anguish when the subject of taking Franklin off Spectacular Bid came up. While the Meyerhoffs pondered, Delp told Franklin to drive slowly home from Miami to Maryland. "Ronnie," he said, "just get in that car and don't think about this thing. Even if you lose Bid you will still ride for me. I've still got a lot of horses and you're a young man."
Franklin returned to Miami after taking a few days off. Entering the Flamingo, he had not had a winner since the Florida Derby. One of his mounts was involved in a foul at Hialeah last week, resulting in a five-day suspension beginning on March 26.
"In the time before the Flamingo," Franklin says, "I tried hard not to think about what happened in the Florida Derby. I tried to keep that entire thing out of my head. Sometimes it wasn't easy to do. One of the problems Bid had in the Florida Derby was leaving the starting gate. The horse bumped into the side of the gate, and I almost got thrown off. There was an assistant starter in the gate, and Bid don't like nobody grabbing hold of him around his head. He'll bite your arm off. In the Flamingo, Mr. Delp and I talked about not having anybody hold the horse, and Mr. Delp told the starter that we didn't want any help in the gate. And, boy, Bid didn't need any help whatsoever. He broke faster and straighter because he didn't have a man in the gate. I'm not going to have a man in the gate anymore."
Spectacular Bid's presence in the walking ring drew a crowd, some of it to shout words of derision at the young rider, some to offer encouragement. "Hang on. Ronnie," one fan hollered, "it's a piece of cake." Others applauded as Delp hoisted him aboard.
Delp and Franklin had made three complete trips around the walking ring before Franklin was put up on Bid, the trainer talking to the young rider, often putting his arm around Ron's shoulder. It was obvious that Delp was trying to keep Franklin's mind occupied so the boy wouldn't hear the catcalls. "The only instruction I gave Ronnie," Delp said, "was to keep the horse out of trouble. I told him, 'If he wants to strut, let him strut his stuff. Don't be afraid to let him roll.' "
Of Bid's seven opponents, only Sir Ivor Again had won a stakes race (he was also the only horse to run back at Bid in the Flamingo, having finished fifth in the Florida Derby; on Saturday he would finish third). The improving starter in the Flamingo appeared to be Greentree Stable's Strike The Main, a roan-colored son of The Axe II, which had finished in the money in seven of his nine lifetime starts. He finished second on Saturday.
Trainer Jack Gaver was realistic about Strike The Main's chances. "It would take some kind of a fluke for him to beat Spectacular Bid," Gaver said. "I'd be very happy to finish second in the Flamingo. Spectacular Bid is probably not going to be beaten unless something crazy happens, and crazy things don't happen twice in a row to good horses."
Since he has faced only mediocre opposition in Florida this winter, nobody really knows how good Spectacular Bid is. Still, few horses ever win nine stakes races in a row. Seattle Slew did not, nor did Secretariat or Affirmed. And while the running time of the 1979 Flamingo was two seconds off the track record at 1:48⅖ the early fractions of 1:09[3/5] for six furlongs and 1:35[1/5] for the mile were impressive.
"Now we go to Kentucky," said Delp. "I guess Flying Paster out in California is the horse to worry about, but I can really only worry about my own horse. I know this-might be a crazy thing to say about a horse that won four stakes in Florida this winter and has knocked off nine in a row, but I think Bid is going to get better. I really think that."