Everything is ready. Around Lexington, the pastureland is green enough for Tipperary. At the Keeneland track, the elms, winter skeletons only a week ago, are misty with new growth. Spring was right on time in Kentucky this year, but the star was a little late. For 10 days the third stall in Barn 17 stood fresh, clean and empty, new straw for bedding at hand.
Twice, the DC-8 at Miami International Airport had been readied to fly the finest 3-year-old racehorse in America northward. Twice the journey was put off. But finally, as it should be for stars, everything was perfect—68° at Gulfstream Park in Florida, 68° at Keeneland. On Sunday, April 8, the colt walked calmly up the ramp from his van to the aircraft and was settled up front. He travels first class, of course, and, like any other first-class passenger, he is entitled to be irritated when things go wrong.
In this case, a faulty valve at takeoff caused hot air to flood his box stall for 15 minutes. He broke into a sweat and did some kicking. But the rest of the two-hour flight was fine. By midafternoon he was in his new stall at Keeneland and making short work of seven quarts of oats. The next morning he would gallop two miles, in preparation for the Blue Grass Stakes on April 26 and, on the heels of that, the great three-act drama of the Triple Crown.
The gray colt—"gray" is unworthily dull; call him gun-metal shot with copper—is ready. Spectacular Bid has moved to center stage.
April 23, 1979
When Spectacular Bid went south last December, to winter and take one of the classic routes to Churchill Downs, his credentials were imposing. He was the 2-year-old champion and the winter-book favorite for the Derby. Less than six weeks earlier, at the Laurel Futurity in Maryland, he had shattered his Eastern rivals, General Assembly and Tim the Tiger, who had been depicted, prematurely, as the new Affirmed and Alydar. He had won by an effortless 8½ lengths in track-record time.
Vital statistics: 1976 gray colt by Bold Bidder out of Spectacular by Promised Land; $37,000, Keeneland Fall Sales. Owner: Hawksworth Farm. Breeder: Mrs. W. Jason and Mrs. W. Gilmore. Trainer: Grover G. Delp. To which might be added: earnings, $649,980; present insured value, $14,170,000; present market value, impossible to guess.
A lot of money indeed to bundle into a big horse van for a 23-hour road trip from Laurel to Gulfstream Park: just that happened, though, when Bid headed south last Dec. 6 and Bud Delp blue-skied happily about the smoothness of the trip. As is his wont. He admitted later (as is also his wont) that the ride had been a scary one. Though Bid was traveling in a separate compartment up front, another of the string (there were six other horses aboard) had become agitated, and had to be shipped back to Maryland.
But everything else was blue sky. Delp flew down ahead of Spectacular Bid and led him into Barn 5 when he arrived at Gulfstream on a Thursday. By Sunday the colt was galloping on the track. "Strong, supergood!" crowed Delp. "He acclimated great. There was a mild autumn in Maryland; the change didn't hurt him. We were in no hurry. We had until the first week in February"—the Hutcheson, Bid's first prep, was on Feb. 7—"and we just wanted to be sure he was in good flesh. We let up on him, let him relax. Gallop a mile and a half, two miles, nice and easy, just as he likes to do. Takes about as much out of him as walking around the barn three times takes out of me."
The truth was that the take-it-easy policy suited Delp as much as it did the horse. Most of January he had spent around the swimming pool watching TV—All in the Family preferred—at the villa he had rented in Golden Beach, a wealthy section of private houses set between the condominiums and hotels of Hallandale and North Miami Beach.
It was as pleasant a place as Delp could have chosen to sit out a three-week suspension that he had received for hitting an exercise boy at Laurel back in November (the Laurel stewards handed down his suspension but there was a reciprocal agreement with Florida). Delp had punched the rider because, he contended, the latter had endangered both Spectacular Bid and his jockey, Ronnie Franklin. The sudden flash of temper was characteristic. So was his immediate admission that he had been wrong to hit the boy.
The impulsiveness, the seeming lack of control under stress, has been noted many times since Delp and his horse began to achieve fame late last year, and there are those who attribute his low boiling point to his sudden emergence into the limelight. During his 24 years in the business, 18 as a trainer, Delp has saddled more than 2,000 winners, but almost all at less than fashionable tracks like Bowie in Maryland and Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Last month, as Spectacular Bid was taking his last breeze before the Flamingo, a horseman said of Delp, "He'll be a basket case before he gets to the Derby."
History almost repeated itself one morning at Gulfstream. A moist, warm wind was blowing over the track. Bid had breezed perfectly, coming straight out of the chute and going straight and fast to the half-mile post. "That horse don't need no training," said a stablehand with admiration. Then, as Bid trotted back toward his barn—Delp walking briskly behind him—an exercise boy, only feet away, reared up his mount and started it kicking and plunging as if it were in a rodeo. Sagaciously, Bid skipped out of the way.
When he reached the barn, Delp, swinging his riding whip, looked in a dangerous mood. "I know that jerk," he said. "He does it all the time. He wants his picture in the paper. Who does he work for? If I had him here now I'd knock his teeth out."
A few moments later, no more than 50 feet away, unmistakable in his striped shirt and orange helmet, the errant rider was standing and staring with insolent challenge at Delp.
"Don't hit him, Bud," one of his staff said anxiously.
"You crazy?" Delp said, grinning. "I'd rather hit you. You wouldn't do nothing."
A tense moment passed. "It'll be a miracle if we get through to the Triple, jerks like that around," he grumbled. But he was clearly in control.
The truth is that Delp is by no means the loudmouthed redneck that he is sometimes made out to be, though it is also true that he sometimes brings the judgment on himself because he enjoys playing the role so much. He is a quick-witted, sensitive man with a gift for the sharp phrase. But it is a two-edged gift, and one which he cannot resist using. "Make it quick," he tells the press one morning at the barn. "When my horse starts pawing, I start pawing." A photographer innocently asks what time Bid gets fed. "If you don't know when horses get fed," says Delp, "go out and buy a goddamn book about horses." Even more bluntly, on the phone to Hall of Fame Jockey Eddie Arcaro, "If you want to see me, get your butt over to my barn."
In contrast, consider the warmth and affection in which he is held by his assistant trainer, Charlie Bettis, by his exercise rider, Bob Smith, by his groom, Moe Hall. Consider his closeness to his two teen-age sons and, in spite of everything that has happened, to his "third son," who has lived as a member of the family for two years, Ronnie Franklin. At Gulfstream some mornings this winter and spring, the barn looked like Muhammad Ali's camp before a big fight, what with the friends, relatives and hangers-on.
Somewhat desperately aware of this, Delp vows to find living quarters at least 20 miles from Churchill Downs for the Derby. He even told his mother he would not give her his telephone number there. "You'd better, you'd better," she told him. "You can't lose me." She will certainly get it from him. She makes great scrapple, he confesses. Gargantuan scrapple-based breakfasts are what Delp trains on. Spectacular Bid's breakfast is two quarts of oats from the night watchman at 4 a.m. Depending on his training program, he gets from 11 to 14 quarts of oats a day, supplemented with heavy clover, timothy mix, alfalfa hay, a vitamin compound called Drive, a blood tonic called Red-glow and a doughnut now and then. Delp gets up at 5:45, arrives at 6:30 and begins to orchestrate a routine that is almost as ceremonious as a royal levee at the court of an 18th-century French king.
It begins with the ritual looking-over. First, Moe inspects the horse. Then Charlie. Then Dougie and Gerald, Delp's two teen-age sons. Then Delp himself. Next comes the binding on of the work bandages. "He had a slight tendency to burn his heels last summer," Delp explains. "They are only precautions, but I'm not going to take them off. He'll race in them, in fact." They are white bandages, fixed with red tape. Moe, in his battered fishing hat, applies them.
Bid's tack goes on. By now it's around 7 a.m. He emerges, takes a turn around the barn. Smith gets on him and-he heads out to the track, escorted by Rocky, a somewhat decadent-looking pony, with Bob's wife Cheryl up. "Heck, he doesn't really need a pony," Delp says. "Rocky is just there to ride shotgun, watch in case there's a loose horse."
On a breezing day, Rocky is left off after Bid has walked down the stretch. Then he'll take a full gallop, a mile and a quarter, before he breaks off. The last quarter, Bob will have him running strong. "Bob will be clocking off those eighths," Delp says. "Bob has a clock in his head."
Bob, in fact, prefers to be known by his professional name, R. A. Smith, because he is still hoping to return to his career as a full-time jockey—he was the leading apprentice at Santa Anita in 1970. "But he had a little problem with his weight," Delp says, "and with a blood disorder that put him out of race riding. But he's coming back and he's ridden about 10 races this year." Smith is an intelligent, quiet-spoken man of 29. "Without somebody like him," Delp says, "there is no way a trainer can get the best out of a horse, a Spectacular Bid or a $5,000 claimer."
Speaking of Bid, a vivid warmth comes into Smith's voice. "He's so smart and swift to respond. Move your hands on him one time, he goes to automatic. He'll gallop a mile at precisely the same pace until you make another move. Just tell him something, and he'll change. If you want him to relax the last half-mile, say, you tell him, he'll do it. He's such an easy horse, so willing. A kind horse on the track. Easy and effortless, easy and effortless."
Which is precisely what Ronnie Franklin will tell you. He never exercises the horse himself, but he is at the stable every morning to talk to him ("Hello, punk!" Delp says to Franklin typically, passing by and pulling his hair). Ronnie is Steve Cauthen with a smile, perhaps more of a boy at 19 than Steve was at 16, more dewy-eyed at the succession of events that has brought him from a row house in Dundalk, a working-class section of Baltimore, by way of the humble position of hot-walker to Delp's string, to potential winning jockey at Churchill Downs. Anyone who might consider the trainer to be harsh or ungenerous would do well to observe the way that Ronnie looks at him.
The same kind of affection is apparent in a less easily impressed man, Moe Hall, who has been with Delp for nine years. "Much more than a groom," Delp says. "Out in the snow every morning at 4 a.m. midwinter in Bowie. Nothing makes him nervous. No way I've ever seen him nervous. Maybe takes a little too much V.O. now and then, but I've had a little too much myself at times. If that horse is in perfect shape, Moe has had a lot to do with it."
Moe, a calm, somewhat cynical-looking man, supervises the ritual of the bath and rubdown that follows exercise, clearly the part the horse enjoys most. This takes place on a piece of green artificial turf, placed to protect Bid from the unforgiving asphalt. "It should be royal red," Delp observes, "but it's next best—money green."
First, Bid gets a bucket of warm water, with disinfectant and salt in it, over his body. Then a second bucket of clean water for his face. This bit he doesn't like so much. "He gets pecky," Delp notes. Bid is not the kind of horse whose muzzle you can rub. Even Delp sometimes gets nipped. Least nipped are Bob and the two boys. After the rub, Moe applies a blanket—royal red this time—for the cooling-out walk. And when Bid goes for his walk, you had better keep a good lookout.
In a voice as formal and stentorian as a town crier's, the walker—often Doug or Gerald—calls out, "Watch your backs! Big horse back of me! Big horse comin'!"
Spectacular Bid is a little under 16 hands, so that he is not noticeably bigger than most of the horses around the barn. But, indisputably, he is the Big Horse, with almost audible capitals.
The scheduled walk is 45 minutes. Sometimes, though, Bid gets bored after half an hour and shows it. He'll throw his head, reach out with a leg, as if he were saying, "It's time for the hay. I want to get back to my quarters. I want to relax." Often he gets his way by falling asleep standing up. When he does get his hay ration, he likes to eat it from the ground, not from a rack, standing, if he can, with his tail in a bucket of water. After an hour, Moe comes in and "fools with him a while." Finally, he sleeps, Moe says, "lying on the ground like a cow."
The training regimen that Delp arranged for the big horse in Florida was entirely pragmatic. "I don't train horses on a 30-day schedule," he declares. "It would bore them to death. Like, I might say, 'He's going three quarters tomorrow definitely.' But I'm not going to know until after that work just what he'll need in the next one. It might be a sharp ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö‚à´ths. It might be a sharp half-mile out of the gate. If he looks a little tired, I'll have the chance to come back and do a three quarters again. So no way my horse is going to be hurt. My horse is going to be helped."
This loose planning certainly seemed to work well at the start of the Florida campaign. On Feb. 7 Bid took the Hutcheson by almost four lengths. Twelve days later came an even more positive win in the Fountain of Youth. It looked as if the Eastern challenge, virtually confined by now to General Assembly, was less of a threat than ever. "He's a good colt," said Delp of his erstwhile rival, "but I don't think LeRoy Jolley has decided what to do. If my horse had been dusted off the way his was, I'd be keeping away for as long as possible."
That prophecy, made early in the year, was a fair one. A later rumor, that General Assembly might go in the Flamingo, was quickly scotched, and by then the Eastern colt was simply not in Delp's mind. He was only considering the California colt Flying Paster as a serious rival. And then, not overly much. "I've never seen Flying Paster," he said. "I've looked at his charts. But, you know, I really can't worry about these other horses." This was before Flying Paster's loss in the San Felipe Handicap when, carrying 127 pounds, he was third. And it was also before Spectacular Bid's curious victory in the Florida Derby.
Having dismissed Flying Paster almost on the spur of the moment, Delp began to muse aloud. "It would only be a couple more hours to fly from Hollywood to Lexington...." Suddenly, one is amazed to realize he is talking about Hollywood, California and its Derby, on April 14: "Only $200 to nominate...if he just wins his three races here at Gulfstream, he could fly out there, beat Flying Paster by eight or 10 lengths, and the Kentucky Derby would be a walkover! What a thought! What publicity!"
The idea was grabbed from the air, quickly forgotten. It was unlikely, indeed, that the Meyerhoffs, the big horse's owners, ever heard of it. "We have great influence on Bud," Tom Meyerhoff says cheerfully. "He tells us what to do and we agree."
Nevertheless, it was Tom's father, 50-year-old Harry Meyerhoff, who put in the winning, but none-too-spectacular, bid of $37,000 for the big horse at the Keeneland fall sales of 1977. "He was one of the last of 250 or so horses we looked over," says Harry. "He was in Barn 21, right at the end, right down by the track kitchen."
That year, Delp was late getting to the sales. He had missed his plane and had to spend a night in Atlanta. "All day long," Harry Meyerhoff recalls, "he talked about the great grits they had fed him down there." Delp approved Meyerhoffs selection of Bid as a horse to go for. "Looks like a runner," was the note Delp wrote in his catalog.
Meyerhoff, a bearded, jolly man, made his money building houses around Baltimore, and he was willing to earmark at least $60,000, with a mental reserve of 10% more, for the gray colt. The price delighted him.
Now, 25-year-old Tom has relieved him of most of his building business. Harry sat with Teresa, his second wife, and with Tom also, on a recent sparkling-blue spring morning, in the living room of Hawksworth Farm, close to Easton, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The three of them clearly were living through the countdown to the Derby with all the patience of small children waiting for Christmas. Out on the water, two white workboats dredged for oysters. Peacocks strutted the lawns. Yes, indeed, Tom had already been to check out Churchill Downs, had even paced the distance from the Meyerhoff box in the third tier of the stands to the winner's circle.
A beautiful year for the Meyerhoffs. Even their other horses win, though nobody notices. Hawksworth Farm has handled four crops of thoroughbreds so far—21 horses—and 19 have won races. The Florida Derby provided them with the only vaguely sour note.
The events of this year's Florida Derby—the ones on the track, that is—are well documented. Bid broke badly, hit the side of the gate (there were bloodstains on Ronnie's breeches when the race ended). Going into the first turn, the jockey had the chance to clear Sir Ivor Again, with Angel Cordero aboard, but failed to go through. ("If I had been riding Bid," Delp said belligerently the next morning, "Cordero would have moved his horse or he would have been on his hands and knees in the sand.") Franklin had to steady the big horse and move behind Cordero, and by the time he hit the backstretch he was trailing the leaders by 10 lengths. Majestically, Bid made up the ground, only for Ronnie to fall into still another trap, boxed in on the far turn by three horses. Only the superlative quality of his mount enabled him to check, go four horses wide, draw clear in the final sixteenth and win by 4½ lengths.
Well witnessed also was Delp's anger at the race's end. To all in the winner's circle it was plain that Franklin was on his way home to Maryland. The Meyerhoffs looked sick and sorry. To add to Ronnie's misery, his mother and sister had traveled from Baltimore to watch him ride, and he made his escape with them, saying that he was "going out to dinner." Before the race, Delp had said that Bill Shoemaker "was only a phone call away." However, there was no sign out there in front of the Gulfstream crowd that he was searching his pockets for change.
The events that followed would have made a good soap opera. For almost a week, it was understood, the Meyerhoffs were searching their hearts, were racked by the decision they had to make over Ronnie's future, tormented over the list of alternative jockeys Delp had presented them, to which, somewhat tardily, he had added Franklin's name. A Friday press conference, at which the name of the big horse's future jockey would be announced, was canceled. The following Monday, six long days after the race, Delp tearfully declared that Ronnie would continue to ride Bid after all. Cue violins. Slow curtain.
Except for Delp's initial anger, the reality was somewhat different. "I could have murdered him," he says now. "I could have killed him right there. But by midevening, I had cooled off. I knew Ronnie was badly shaken. I intended him to be well shook up. Plenty of times he's caught hell from me. This was the first time in public, though."
It seems very likely, knowing the man, knowing the genuinely paternal affection he feels for Franklin, that remorse set in early that night. Certainly, Delp didn't linger at the somewhat pallid postrace celebrations. He sat up waiting for Ronnie to come home until 1:30 a.m. He dozed off, and when he awoke again it was 4 a.m. Ronnie was still not in his room. Delp searched and found the young jockey asleep in Gerald's room. "He'd moved in for protection," Delp recalls. "I threw a blanket over him and let him sleep on."
Early next morning at the barn, whatever anger he had left had been diverted to Cordero and Jorge Velasquez, who had ridden Fantasy 'n Reality and who Delp felt was also guilty of impeding Bid. "Only an act of God can stop my horse!" he declared in his finest Churchillian vein. "Never an act of Cordero! Whoever it is that rides Bid, neither of those two will sit on him. My colt came out in good order. He is playing this morning, no thanks to Cordero. He fooled around so much, intimidating Franklin and Bid. that he cost LeRoy fourth-place money." LeRoy Jolley was the trainer of Sir Ivor Again. The outburst, Delp said, brought a lawyer's letter on Cordero's behalf. "I tossed it in the trash can," Delp said.
Meanwhile, he had formally declared that Harry Meyerhoff would decide on Bid's future rider. He expected a call, he said, at around five that evening, roughly 24 hours after the race. He had not spoken to Franklin yet that day. "We'll have breakfast later. He'll be riding at Hialeah this afternoon! He better be cocky."
The chastened Franklin had no winners at Hialeah, and the Meyerhoffs seemed to have put off their decision until the next day, Thursday, having been given a short list of four riders—Shoemaker, Darrel McHargue, Jacinto Vasquez and Ronnie himself—to choose from. The racing world was agog with speculation. After all, it had no way of reading Delp's mind. Which, in the last resort, was the only mind that counted.
Delp now admits that as early as Wednesday he was entirely sure that Ronnie would remain on the big horse. "On Thursday morning, Ronnie's mother came to see me and she was shaken and upset," he says. "I told her, 'Don't be silly, he's going to be O.K. Whatever happens, he'll never go back to earning $80 a week. We'll both be eating Maryland crab cakes this time next year anyway.' "
Later on Thursday, though, and for the first time, Delp felt a twinge of uncertainty, which he said he had caught, like the flu, from Dougie and Gerald, who had been as concerned as anybody over their friend's future. "Thursday evening, Friday morning, I was only 99% certain," he recalls.
The method he had adopted to keep Franklin on the horse was somewhat Machiavellian. "Easily the best chance for Ronnie was to have the Meyerhoffs decide." he says. "If the pressure had been directly on me, I would have had to take him off. Any other rider but Ronnie, I would not have blown up in the winner's circle. I would just have waited until I got home. Anybody but Ronnie would have had no second chance. Anybody else, I'd have said, 'You'll never sit on it again.' Anybody else, I wouldn't have given a damn. Heck, I never saw a worse ride in my life and I've watched 10,000 races. I wasn't acting when I called him worse than an idiot. Nobody can act as good as that."
With unaccustomed difficulty, Delp was trying to explain the way he was torn. In all honesty, he couldn't justify keeping the boy on the horse if the decision had been his. But emotionally—and he is a man of strong emotions—he wanted Franklin to stay. The only way he could achieve this and salve his conscience was by dumping the responsibility on the Meyerhoffs, who would, after a decent interval he was sure, reinstate the jockey.
They did just that at 1 p.m. on Friday afternoon, though the secret was well kept until Monday. To Delp's intermittent annoyance during the four months that he lived in Golden Beach, the poolside telephone, which was set on a high stool, could not actually be reached from the pool itself. So, dripping, Delp had to haul himself out of the water to hear the good news when it came. By then, though, beginning to be worried—and irritated—by the delay, he had made a contingency plan. Should Franklin be taken off Bid, he would take the big horse to Lexington alone. Ronnie, the two boys and the other 21 horses in his string would go to Maryland. The thought in his mind was that at least Ronnie would have the chance of becoming the leading rider at Pimlico this season.
As soon as the reprieve came through, he went looking for the boy. Ronnie was with Dougie. They were lying on the bed listening to music and reading the Daily Racing Form. "Earlier in the day," Delp remembers, "I'd told them that they were heading for Maryland anyway, for a week's vacation if Ronnie still had the ride, for good otherwise. So I went in and put on a real serious face. 'O.K.,' I said, 'you can start packing.' Ronnie looked up at me, just as serious. I gave it a couple of seconds and I said, 'Ronnie, you're riding him.' "
The trainer recalls no tears at this point. "After that," he says, "I had to keep Ronnie under lock and key to keep the secret. I wouldn't let him use the phone. He's the kind of kid who would say 'No' if he was told to, but all you would have to do is just look at him and his eyes would be saying 'Yes.' He can't conceal anything."
Why conceal anything anyway? The inglorious reason why the announcement of Ronnie's reinstatement was held over until the following Monday, why the jockey had to keep his mouth shut for three days, was that ABC-TV was putting on a Saturday afternoon program that featured the Florida Derby and the consequent brouhaha. It would have looked silly if all the prerecorded speculation had already been answered in the morning paper. So a Gulfstream Park official pleaded with Delp to hold off the decision until Monday, and he agreed. The network later denied influencing Delp's timing.
Delp says his agreement with ABC and the track did not entirely come out of the goodness of his heart. "How do I get the most miles out of my horse?" he asks with an innocent smile. "Isn't he worth more today than he was yesterday?" If you take the matter a little further and inquire how it was possible for him to turn down a jockey of the caliber of Shoemaker, who was apparently willing and able to ride, the reply you get is, "This is show biz, isn't it? Didn't that list of jockeys look pretty good in lights? Who got flattered? Ronnie Franklin."
There was certainly show biz aplenty on Monday, when the formal announcement was made, and the tears that were not shed on the Friday flowed freely. But the decision to put Ronnie back on the horse after one bad race was not crazily illogical. As an apprentice last year he won the Eclipse Award, rode 262 winners, earned $1,756,950 in purses. Which raises the question of how he managed to ride so messily in the Florida Derby.
With hindsight, Delp offers some suggestions: "Ronnie was off-balance all day. Charlie Bettis' car was stolen. Ronnie, without thinking, lent him his and then had to borrow money from Doug for a cab to the jocks' room. The Meyerhoffs flew in from Acapulco and they were in our house the morning of the race fixing Bloody Marys. Regina [Delp's girl friend] had also arrived and she was cooking up a scrapple and bacon breakfast. Normally I would have breakfast quietly with Ronnie, talk to him, but with all the rumpus there wasn't the chance. I wanted to tell him what to expect from the other jocks. There wasn't time. I gave everybody hell for that. Does Tom Landry have to entertain the owners of the Cowboys the morning of the Super Bowl?"
Franklin had weathered earlier crises to hold on to Spectacular Bid. When he rode the colt at Delaware Park last August, he had managed to get the 2-year-old boxed in and had lost the race by 2½ lengths. This was just about the time that Delp was realizing he had a great horse, not merely a good one. And it was Ronnie's second loss in a month: in the Tyro at Monmouth, he had let Bid run wide early and finished fourth.
Delp decided to shop around for a new jockey. He called agent Lenny Goodman, an old friend, to inquire about Steve Cauthen's services. A day or two later the call was returned when he was away at the Timonium sales. Gerald took it and left a note on the kitchen table. It read, simply, "Cauthen-Goodman-Idiot." Interpreted, this meant that in Gerald's opinion, Goodman had been foolish to turn down the ride for Cauthen.
Cauthen, in fact, did have a prior commitment, aboard an outsider called Sensational, in a stake for fillies and mares. She finished sixth. On the same day, at Atlantic City, Franklin rode Spectacular Bid to a 15-length win.
That was on Sept. 23. The following month, before the Champagne Stakes at Belmont, Goodman solicited hard for Cauthen to ride Bid. But still smarting from the earlier rebuff, Delp turned him down and hired Jorge Velasquez, on the grounds that Franklin lacked experience on the New York track.
Velasquez rode Spectacular Bid twice last fall and won on both occasions. But when, on Oct. 28, the important Laurel Futurity came around, Ronnie was back on the big horse.
Delp is happy to give you technical reasons for this. He felt that in the second of Velasquez' races, the Young America at the Meadowlands, he held Bid back too severely and hadn't the confidence to let him run free. Delp also believes that the horse just naturally runs faster for Franklin. "We ran tapes of all the colt's races," he says, "and it was visible to everybody that the horse's stride was more fluid with Franklin." Indeed, in what Delp rates as the big horse's best performance, Ronnie rode him to that 8½-length victory in the Laurel.
There are a number of people in racing Delp does not care too much for, and one of them is Velasquez. Especially since the goings-on at the Florida Derby, he will tell you that the jockey was taken off Bid because "he wanted to take over, put a burr on his left side, and an extended blinker on the left also, as if to say Spectacular Bid was a rogue horse." With a seemingly illogical jump, he goes on to observe, "Harry Meyerhoff paid him to be a good jockey, not to see how beautiful his wife is." It turns out Delp was referring to Mrs. Velasquez' tendency to get to the winner's circle ahead of anyone else. "If he wants that, let him buy his own stable of horses," says Delp.
Delp is at his prickliest, though, when it comes to racing's Establishment, to the Old Guard which, he believes, regards him as a Johnny-come-lately, a provincial up from the country. He was deeply suspicious of Hialeah and its somewhat faded glories. He says that everyone told him to headquarter Bid there last winter, but he preferred Gulfstream as more contemporary, less redolent of tradition, even to the extent of vanning Bid to Hialeah only on the morning of the Flamingo. It was the first time the horse had raced on a track without previously exercising on it to test the surface.
Establishment figures also get the rough edge of Delp's tongue. He has never forgotten a remark made by John Veitch, Calumet Farm's urbane and often witty trainer, that at the time of the Laurel Futurity he, Delp, was suffering from "Eclipsitis." "Yes, the s.o.b. said that," Delp said. "He brought Tim the Tiger down and said I was chickening out." (Delp had complained of the state of the Laurel track and threatened to withdraw his horse.) "If Alydar had switched trainers with Affirmed last year, Alydar would have been the Triple Crown winner. I'm sure Veitch's daddy is the greatest, and John has great horses. But having great horses doesn't make a great trainer. Veitch and his crowd just don't like an outsider to step on their territory."
Delp was also unhappy with the Hialeah track for the Flamingo. "Too dry, too cuppy, too slow," he said on TV the previous evening and, as at Laurel, threatened to pull his horse out.
In the morning, though, after he had settled Bid into a stall belonging to trainer Woody Stephens ("I never met him, but he's a class guy," Delp says), he was happier. Bid got his bath, not on his green mat but on classy Hialeah grass, then a light prerace lunch of a quart of oats as against a normal ration of three quarts.
Delp almost missed his own rations before the race. He discovered that the Hallandale steak house he favors was closed. He drove around, found a deli and a sandwich and came close to losing his way to Hialeah. But the reception that waited for him there was enough to change any man's opinion of the place.
There was a big, boozy, friendly crowd in the paddock, almost every man jack on the side of Bid, Ronnie and Bud, but the groom was having a tough time holding the frisky colt, who had to make more circuits than seemed necessary. TV blight again. (Justifiably, Delp said later, "Thoroughbreds don't need all that display.") The big roar was for Franklin, though: "Hang on, Ronnie! Stick on!" Whatever else it achieved, the recent controversy had made Franklin hugely popular.
Before post time, Delp had no clear idea of where he was to sit to watch the race. At the last minute his small party was whirled upstairs, to find itself in the box next to LeRoy Jolley, his rival, the trainer of General Assembly, who had Sir Ivor Again running (but with Donald MacBeth this time, not Cordero). Formal good wishes were exchanged. Then the horses were in the gate.
No longer was this the ebullient, chatty Delp who will gladly laugh at his own big-talking habits. ("I'm better than Reggie Jackson already and I'm going after Ali.") He fell silent. His only movement was a spasmodic shrugging of the shoulders. As soon as Franklin was clear of the gate, this disappeared.
Of all his races so far, the Flamingo was perhaps the closest thing to a formality that the big horse had encountered. It was an exhibition, a presentation, not a race. Recognizing this, the crowd was content to enjoy itself. When, on the backstretch, Bid magisterially opened up daylight between himself and the pack, a huge, almost loving, long-drawn-out cheer arose. Delp was the last in the box to rise to his feet. Then he clapped politely, like one applauding a moderately good shot in a tennis match.
Later he explained the shoulder-twitching at the start. The only worry, he said, was that Franklin might bump again, even fall. "When he broke clear, I knew the race was won." The time was not great, two seconds off the track record. But the going was very slow. At Hialeah, they will tell you with a slight sniff", no special preparation of the track is made, not even for the biggest race of the year. "Let him strut, Ronnie," was one of the few remarks that Delp made during the race.
In the euphoria of the winner's circle, Ronnie was strutting somewhere inside his head, to judge from the grin. Delp presented him with a small kiss just below his left ear. Ronnie appeared to be chewing the same piece of gum that he was working on in the paddock. With delight, he noticed that the engraving on his presentation plaque showed the No. 8 horse in the lead—and Bid had started in the eighth position. "They must have known we were gonna win!" he crowed. But, sure, everyone knew that.
It seemed almost the end of Florida for the big horse, for Delp and his team. The morning after the race, Gerald, Ronnie and Dougie would leave at the crack of dawn for the long drive north to Lexington. Four days later, on March 29, trainer and horse planned to fly up to join them. Would flying for the first time upset Bid? "I don't think so," says Bud. "It didn't bother me either—the first time I did it."
Naturally, the boys failed to make an early start. Bud woke up the morning after the race to find them a quarter packed. They finally got away 24 hours late, misread the map and took a considerable detour to Savannah, Ga., before they headed away from the ocean and back toward Kentucky.
But they were not as late as the big horse. The rest of Delp's string, Charlie Bettis in charge, got to Keeneland on March 27. They found a powdering of snow, a 32° temperature, and Bid's $12,000 charter trip was put off until Sunday.
Then another postponement. The unseasonable cold at Keeneland was followed by five inches of rain over the next three days. There was some coughing among the 21 horses that had shipped in with Bettis. "Heck," said Delp, "I might wait until two days before the Blue Grass before coming."
Wasn't that leaving things a little late? To a question like that you get a Delp answer: "When you fly, you can be partying that night, can't you?"
The big party is at Churchill Downs on May 5. Already the best odds you can get with Caliente, the Mexican winter book, are 1 to 2 (you could have got even money on Secretariat at this point in 1973). Given a good win in the Blue Grass, Bid may start at the lowest odds ever offered on a Derby runner.
As for Flying Paster, who retrieved much of his reputation in winning the Santa Anita Derby, Ronnie has a word on that. "I've seen him on TV," he says. "We got a much more longer and a faster stride." Meanwhile, Delp is a long way past the Triple Crown. "Anytime after the Travers, we'll take Affirmed in a match, beat him 10 or 12 lengths. He can pick the track and the distance. Just give me a month to get my horse ready."
A not-too-surprising bit of trumpet concerto from a man who calls his 7-month-old Labrador puppy "Champ." But, so far anyway, the big horse shows no sign of letting him down.