There was still a mile to go in the 105th Kentucky Derby, but it was easy to see that something peculiar was happening in the world's most famous horse race. The position of the leader, General Assembly, made eminent sense because he had worked out over the Churchill Downs track in fine fashion only three days before. But the presence of the horses battling him for the lead was bewildering. Shamgo, a 102-to-1 shot who had not won a race in 1979, was running second and forcing the pace although he had been a come-from-behind horse heretofore. Flying Paster, the winner of both the Hollywood and Santa Anita Derbies, was an odd-looking third. Normally a horse with a beautiful stride, Flying Paster was struggling to get hold of the track and was having no luck whatsoever. The fourth horse was Lot O' Gold, dismissed by the crowd at 51 to 1. Spectacular Bid, the odds-on favorite, who had never been worse than fifth in any of his last 10 victories, was running seventh on a zigzag course that looked as if it would bring nothing but trouble.
By the time the field reached the head of the Churchill Downs stretch, normality had returned and the race was essentially over. Spectacular Bid and his much-maligned jockey, 19-year-old Ron Franklin, had taken the lead after a brief struggle and were moving out with no other opponent capable of launching a strong final run. At the finish Spectacular Bid had his 11th consecutive win, and again he had shown just how versatile he is. Obviously he is that very rare horse who can handle any track—and almost any adverse circumstance—anywhere; Churchill Downs was the ninth different track on which he has won.
And so Spectacular Bid appears to be on the threshold of becoming the third Triple Crown winner in three years and the fourth in the last seven. Next week he will run in the Preakness at Pimlico, where he may well draw the largest crowd ever to attend a sporting event in the state of Maryland. Spectacular Bid deserves that. Of all the tracks he has run on, he probably prefers Pimlico. It is the place where he and Ron Franklin first got together last June and started on their remarkable odyssey.
Spectacular Bid's winning Derby margin was 2¾ lengths over General Assembly, a margin greater than those of the last three Triple Crown winners: Secretariat, (2½ in 1973), Seattle Slew (1¾ in 1977), and Affirmed (1½ last year). Bid's time was 2:02[2/5] for the 1¼ miles, less than spectacular when compared to Secretariat's record of 1:59[2/5]. But the difference may lie in the surface of the track. It was a lightning-fast one that Secretariat handled so masterfully seven years ago. Spectacular Bid had to make his own lightning. The Churchill Downs track condition had officially changed from good to fast during the afternoon, but the surface was cuppy. Such a track presents hazards to both horse and rider.
Two days before the race, Louisville was deluged by several rainstorms that eventually caused the track to "cup out," as the trainers say. A cuppy track vastly reduces traction; dirt gathers in the cup of a horse's hoof, and dangerous clods are thrown back. Some horses don't like such a track, and they react to it almost immediately.
The second and third choices in this year's Derby didn't care for the track at all. Gordon Campbell, the trainer of highly regarded Flying Paster, knew from the outset that his horse was in grave trouble. "When he started down the backstretch, I knew he didn't like it," Campbell said. "Flying Paster usually has a long, smooth stride. But in the Derby he looked like he was scrambling. Spectacular Bid ran a heck of a race. He's a tough horse. But I'd still like to meet him on a track Flying Paster didn't have so much trouble running over."
More than half an hour after finishing fifth in the worst performance of his 15-race career, Flying Paster was still blowing hard in his stall. "He's never blowing even five minutes after a race," said Campbell. "The field ran the mile in only 1:37[3/5]. Flying Paster can do 1:34. He made his move at Spectacular Bid turning for home, but he faded there. That's what happens when horses fight the racetrack. They get tired quickly."
Screen King, the third favorite in the field of 10, didn't care for the track either, and came in a soundly beaten sixth. Luis Barrera, his trainer, knew his horse wasn't going to run well when the field came through the stretch in the first quarter-mile. "I knew he was going nowhere," Barrera said later. "He was jumping up and down like a goat. But I'll run against Spectacular Bid in the Preakness. My horse just doesn't like a track that cups like this one."
The buildup to this year's Derby centered on the first confrontation between Flying Paster and Spectacular Bid, skilled 42-year-old Don Pierce against young Franklin and Bid's slow run in the Blue Grass stakes nine days earlier. "If there's an edge in the race," Campbell said, "it should be the experience Don has. If my horse likes Churchill Downs, he'll run his race."
As the media hammered at the Pierce vs. Franklin angle, John Sellers, who rode favored Carry Back to victory in the 1961 Derby at the age of 24, gave some expert testimony on the subject of pressure. "That was my third Derby," he said. "The first two were on horses that didn't have much of a chance. The pressure builds and builds because you have the favorite. As the day of Carry Back's Derby approached, I was beside myself. I felt that every rider in the jockeys' room was out to get me. Heck, I even thought the valets were out to get me. I got so paranoid I even thought the clerk of scales was out to get me. On the day of the race, the waiting drove me crazy. About half an hour before I went out to ride Carry Back, I picked up a pool cue and shot some pool to see how jittery I really was. When I could sink the balls, I knew I'd be O.K., because my hands weren't shaking on the cue.
"With Ron Franklin, something will have to be done to get the pressure off him. Heck, when I won on Carry Back, I still had the feeling that the clerk of scales had been on me. I really let him have it after the race. He said, 'John, I haven't said more than a couple of words to you all week.' I cussed him out again. That's how tough things can get."
To lessen Franklin's jitters, Trainer Bud Delp helped him get a mount on a gelding named Seethreepeo in the race immediately preceding the Derby, the $25,000 Twin Spires. Franklin got into a duel with Angel Cordero, the jockey Delp and Franklin had criticized severely following Franklin's poor ride in the Florida Derby. But at the top of the stretch, Franklin's horse pulled away. A lot of the pressure might well have been removed in that race. When the Derby gate opened, Spectacular Bid appeared to dawdle before getting in gear. All the trouble that had been predicted for Franklin seemed about to crystallize. But as General Assembly, Shamgo, Flying Paster and Lot O' Gold swept into the first turn, Franklin moved Spectacular Bid to the outside to be in the clear. Bye-bye, trouble, hello, roses.
When trouble struck, it was elsewhere. At the start a maiden named Great Redeemer ducked from the No. 2 post and slammed into Golden Act, the winner of the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies and the eventual third-place finisher on Saturday. "We got bumped a couple of times even after that," said Act's jockey, Sandy Hawley.
As for Flying Paster, Pierce said, "I went into the race with a lot of confidence, although I was concerned about the track. But if you have a good horse you have to run with him all over the country and have to take what comes. He's a lot better horse than he showed in the Derby."
General Assembly, a son of Secretariat, ran an excellent race and will probably shoot at Bid again in the Preakness. "There are more than 30,000 foals every year," said Bert Firestone, the colt's owner. "It's no disgrace to have the second best. Spectacular Bid is very good. So is General Assembly. His day will come."
Great Redeemer's probably won't; he finished last, beaten by 47¼ lengths. For a good part of the winter his owner, Dr. J. A. Mohamed, a San Antonio specialist in radiology, had taken ads in horse publications stating, "Spectacular Bid WILL NOT WIN any of the Spring Classics.... Nor will General Assembly, Flying Paster or Terlingua." Mohamed suggested that for $25 a year a fan could get the lowdown on racing from a newsletter he writes.
Give Mohamed the roses for cheek, but for the real lowdown, just watch Spectacular Bid's hoofs.