As one of the most fascinating casts of characters in years approached Saturday's Kentucky Derby, no one felt the pressure more keenly than Ron Franklin, the rider of Spectacular Bid. Franklin says he has thought about it, that he knows the kind of questions he will face in Louisville this week. At age 19 he is used to tough questions, having survived one of the sharpest public tongue-lashings that any athlete in any sport has had to endure from someone on his side.
By contrast, a year ago Steve Cauthen, only 18, who eventually would win the Triple Crown with Affirmed, was already the hero of a book, his riding talent established. There were a few questions about whether he was too young to handle the Churchill Downs pressure, but nobody was questioning his intellect, his trainer wasn't calling him an "idiot" and prominent racing writers weren't going on radio shows to hurl other invectives at him.
Only Ron Franklin knows how well the psychic scars have healed following the Florida Derby, when he came close to being taken off Spectacular Bid after a rocky, error-filled ride. And only Ron Franklin will be called upon to cope with the intimidation from other jockeys once the gate opens at Churchill Downs.
Last week, after an easy seven-length win with Spectacular Bid in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, it was all shy smiles and confident words from Franklin.
May 6, 1979
As Ron spoke to the press in one corner of the jockeys' quarters, Darrel McHargue, who finished second aboard Lot O' Gold, looked across the room and talked about the coming week and what Franklin would be facing. "I've ridden in three Derbies and I know what goes through a rider's mind," McHargue said. "You spend a lot of sleepless nights waiting for the race. But at least, by winning the Blue Grass he can go out and walk on the street now. If he'd messed up, he might have lost the mount on the Derby favorite."
That is how it is for Franklin. Can he afford the slightest mistake? When has a jockey gone to the gate in the Derby under such extraordinary circumstances? Which adds to the drama of the first meeting of Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster, a race that rekindles memories of the fabled 1955 Derby, in which Swaps swept out of the West and beat the East's esteemed Nashua.
Flying Paster is a pure California horse. He is owned by Californian B.J. Ridder, was bred in California, is ridden by Don Pierce, one of the state's most skilled and experienced big-money riders, and is handled by Gordon Campbell, 60, one of the state's most successful trainers. Spectacular Bid, on the other hand, is all East. He was bred in Kentucky and is owned, trained and ridden by Marylanders: Harry, Teresa and Tom Meyerhoff; Bud Delp; and Franklin.
Spectacular Bid was as close as he has ever been to the West last Thursday when he galloped home in the $121,550 Blue Grass for his 10th consecutive stakes win. Flying Paster has competed no farther East than Inglewood, Calif., where three weeks ago he won the Hollywood Derby by 10 smashing lengths. Despite their geographical separation, Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are close together when it comes to their past performances. Very close.
Spectacular Bid has not lost a race since Aug. 20 last year. Flying Paster has lost once since Aug. 16, and that happened on March 17, when he gave away eight pounds to Pole Position in the San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita. Every time Spectacular Bid or Flying Paster runs, cash registers ring merrily for their owners: Spectacular Bid has won $52,116 per start ($729,637 altogether); Flying Paster $51,218 ($717,060). Flying Paster has won his last five races by 36½ lengths; Spectacular Bid's last five wins were by 35¾.
The presence of two such horses has predictably cut down the size of this year's Derby field. As recently as March 1 there were 299 horses nominated at $100 each, but by the time the field goes under starter's orders, only six or seven other owners are expected to have put up the necessary $7,500. Yet some of those potential "other horses" offer interesting possibilities.
A handsome son of Secretariat, General Assembly, probably will run despite an inconsistent 1979 season. So will a son of Sham called Shamgo, who has started eight times this year and failed to win. Lot O' Gold, four times second to Spectacular Bid, will run, as will King Celebrity, who last Saturday easily won the one-mile Stepping Stone Purse in a fashion that indicated he likes the Churchill Downs track. Screen King, beaten only a nostril in the Wood Memorial two weeks ago by Instrument Landing, will try to duplicate his closing burst in that race at Louisville. Sir Ivor Again, the only Derby candidate to have gone 1¼ miles (he won at that distance at Aqueduct), is also likely to run.
But the most interesting starter after the big two will be Golden Act, another Coast horse through and through. Owned by Californians Bob Phipps and Bill Old-know, sired by Flying Paster's sire, Gummo, and trained by Loren Rettele, Golden Act was listed in an early Derby week morning line at 10 to 1. Golden Act runs from behind, and if Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster tire each other out, Golden Act can be counted on to come shooting at them through the long Churchill Downs stretch.
By last Saturday morning Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster were bedded down on the Churchill backstretch, separated by only 75 yards. Walking the shedrow, Delp was less brassy, more subdued than usual. For several months he has been talking up Spectacular Bid in most spectacular fashion, so much so that should a trainer apply similar statements to a horse in the future, he will probably be accused of "Delping."
Delp is often caustic, outspoken, outlandish. He has created a vast amount of publicity for his horse and probably gotten a lot of people to root against Spectacular Bid as well, especially after his verbal assault against Franklin following the trouble in the Florida Derby. But in the cold of a Louisville morning last weekend, Delp spoke the unthinkable—the Derby could be lost. He seemed subdued when discussing Spectacular Bid's seven-length victory in the Blue Grass in 1:50, the slowest winning time over a fast track for the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ-mile race in 24 years. "I thought the other three horses would run a bit better than they did, so we would have some competition before going in the Derby," Delp said, "but we had no control over what happened. While I'm not happy about it, I still think the race did nothing but help my horse.
"Bid seems to wait for somebody to come run with him. He's one of those horses that if he can see a horse, he can beat him. But then Flying Paster might be as good as Secretariat and we might get beat. If Flying Paster beats us fair and square in the Derby, I'll shake Mr. Ridder's hand and Mr. Campbell's hand and Mr. Pierce's hand...but only after I cool off."
Gordon Campbell and Bud Delp resemble each other not at all. A quiet man not given to bragging about his horses, Campbell was born in Olds, Alberta and at present lives in Bradbury, Calif., about six miles from Santa Anita. This is Campbell's first Derby, his first visit to Churchill Downs. In the past he has trained some very good horses: Winter Solstice, Messenger of Song, Cascapedia. "Flying Paster is the best horse I have ever had," Campbell says. "The first time he went on the racetrack as a 2-year-old he looked like a fully experienced racehorse. Ben Ridder and I decided last October that we had a chance to get Flying Paster to the Kentucky Derby if nothing went wrong along the way. We decided then to get Don Pierce to ride him because Pierce is a very experienced and intelligent rider. He doesn't panic. Don always stays cool and is patient on a horse."
Gordon Campbell is patient, too. Upon his arrival in Kentucky, writers asked if he had read Delp's glowing remarks about Spectacular Bid through winter and spring. "I didn't come to Churchill Downs for a debate," Campbell said. "I came for a horse race. I believe Spectacular Bid will get one."