Standing in the middle of the trustees' room at Belmont Park last Saturday afternoon, his face wreathed in a smile, trainer Buddy Delp juggled a glass of Scotch in his right hand, reached into his coat pocket with his left, pulled out a pari-mutuel ticket and flashed it in the air.
"Look at this," he said. The ticket was a $1,000 win bet on Dispersal, the Delp-trained chestnut colt who a half hour earlier had set all the pace while hanging up some blazing fractions on his way to a 1¼-length victory in the $500,000-added Woodward Handicap. The 4-year-old colt, who had gone off at 6-1, returned $15.60 for $2.
"Does this ticket tell you how much I loved my horse today?" asked Delp, whereupon he turned and padded off to the betting window. There a mutuel clerk carefully counted out $7,800 in $100 bills and even tossed in a rubber band to wrap them. As he left the window, Delp crowed, "Dispersal handled all the big boys today."
So he had, and as a result, all other bets were off in the race for this year's Horse of the Year award, and the central question—who is the best horse in the land?—was left without a definitive answer as the Oct. 27 Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park draws near. The early favorites for that honor, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, were both retired to stud duty in midsummer, following injuries.
Their departure left Criminal Type, a stylish liver-chestnut son of Alydar, as the uncontested Horse of the Summer. Indeed, Criminal Type, a 5-year-old, had been absolutely brilliant since May 12, the day he rushed to a neck victory in the Pimlico Special and set a track record of 1:53 for the 1[3/16]-mile distance in the process. Then, in the Metropolitan Handicap on May 28 at Belmont, he ran down Housebuster, who may be the fastest sprinter in the world, and beat him by a neck. Easy Goer was 1½ lengths behind in third. A month later, Criminal Type beat Sunday Silence by a head in an eye-popping finish in the Hollywood Gold Cup at Hollywood Park. Finally, on Aug. 4, he loped to the lead in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga and won by almost two lengths.
Criminal Type was king. In fact, the nine-furlong Woodward was considered a mere dress rehearsal for his formal coronation as Horse of the Year in the 10-furlong Breeders' Cup Classic. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas justifiably exuded confidence on the morning of the Woodward. "Isn't this horse a picture of health?" Lukas asked. "His coat looks better than it did in May. He's ready."
Obviously, so was Dispersal (his sire was 1983 Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo, and his dam was Female Star), who had won his last three races, but none was ranked higher than a Grade III event, far below the quality of the four Grade I races in which Criminal Type had made his name. In his most recent race, on Aug. 11, Dispersal had won the Canterbury Cup Handicap by six at Canterbury Downs in Shakopee, Minn.
Though he got off awkwardly and suffered a cut on his left front leg, Dispersal, under Chris Antley, found his stride quickly and set sail for the lead, smoking through the half mile in :45[1/5] and three quarters in 1:08[3/5]. He just kept running. His mile was dazzling: 1:33[1/5]! His final time of 1:45[4/5] was two fifths of a second off Secretariat's world record but equaled Forego's Woodward mark set in 1976.
Criminal Type looked ready to pounce at the top of the stretch, but he flattened out and wound up sixth, beaten nearly five lengths. Harry and Tom Meyerhoff, Dispersal's owners, and Delp floated to the winner's circle, just as they had throughout 1980, when their Spectacular Bid went undefeated as a 4-year-old. In fact, no Meyerhoff horse had won a Grade I event since the day no one chose to race against Bid in the 1980 Woodward and Bid walked over to win it. Now the Meyerhoffs were in the winner's circle again. "What a way to come back," Harry said. "I feel fantastic."