I have a feeling Spectacular Bid is a great, great horse," mused Trainer Bud Delp the other evening. "He should be undefeated now and I know he'll never be beaten again. But the problem is, having never had a great horse before, how can I be sure he is?"
One way to tell is for the horse to simply defeat the principal opposition, as Spectacular Bid did early in October at Belmont Park in the Champagne, the country's premier race for 2-year-olds. A more convincing way is to annihilate the principal opposition and leave them gasping for breath, as Spectacular Bid did last Saturday in the Laurel Futurity. The colt's 8�-length victory, which earned him $84,237 and raised his winnings to $324,484, was accomplished in a track-record 1:41[3/5] for the 1[1/16]-mile race.
But money winnings and race times seem not to matter so much now that Spectacular Bid, with six wins in eight starts, has established himself as the overwhelming winter book choice to win the 1979 Kentucky Derby. "If I owned any of these other horses," gloats Delp, "I wouldn't want to break their hearts by letting them on the same track with Spectacular Bid."
That's too strong, of course. Or is it? Is Spectacular Bid—the spirited gray son of Bold Bidder, whose main claim to fame thus far is that he's a son of Bold Ruler—a super colt? Does he rank with Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat? The issue is clouded by Delp, who has talked so lavishly about the real or imagined wonders of Spectacular Bid that it's hard to separate promise and performance from sheer oratory. A typical Delpism: "Here's how I see it. He'll win everything in Florida next year, which will mean the shortest Derby field in history. Then we come home to Baltimore for the Preakness. Nobody will want to try us here. Then we go to the Belmont, where there will be a few who doubt, foolishly, that he can go a mile and a half. Let's face it. I've got a straight flush. And it's just not often that somebody else gets a higher one."
Delp deals mostly in claiming horses and says he has claimed at least 1,000 since 1962. "But I've never had a horse to really talk about before," he says. "I think this horse is a freak." Ronnie Franklin, the apprentice jockey who rides Spectacular Bid, agrees, saying, "It's like having two horses under me."
For more than a decade Delp has often been among the nation's 10 leading trainers for races won; recently he frequently has appeared among the top five. But he works largely in Maryland. Indeed, although he has started approximately 10,000 horses and has won almost 2,000 races, only 15 times has he entered a horse in New York and he has won there only twice. Thus, since he hasn't been doing it in New York, there is a suspicion that he really hasn't been doing it. The most attention Delp has gotten heretofore was in 1963 when his barn burned at Laurel, and 30 of his 32 racehorses died. The next day he began claiming again.
Now with a 70-horse stable, Delp has been earning between $150,000 and $200,000 a year for himself, and Spectacular Bid is helping his financial picture, because Delp gets 10% of everything the horse wins. "If this colt is worth $10 million, then I'm a millionaire," he says. "It feels gooooood." Claiming horses is the ultimate act of putting your money where your mouth is, because a man like Delp is betting that he can do better with a horse than the man who previously owned him. Delp does. "When I get up in the morning to go to work," he says, "I'm really getting up to go play."
He'll play at the betting windows, too. For years he has bet $50, $100, maybe $200. Once he bet $600. But now that Spectacular Bid has come along and Delp has become so vocal, he is betting more and more money to back up his utterings. At the Champagne, he told his brother Richard to bet $5,000 to win on Spectacular Bid. This was a heady wager, considering many felt Spectacular Bid might be only third best in the field—behind General Assembly, an impressive son of Secretariat, and Tim the Tiger, the Calumet Farm hope.
Why did Delp do it? "Because I figured the odds would be 6 to 1 and I felt in the mood to win $30,000." But, alas, Delp thinks the fact he talked so much about Spectacular Bid's prowess drove the odds down to 5 to 2 and thus he netted only $12,000. "I know my neck is sticking out," says Delp. "But let's face it. When you have a colt as good as Spectacular Bid, you're not supposed to lose."
Spectacular Bid was purchased for $37,000 as a yearling by Harry and Teresa Meyerhoff of Easton, Md., and their son Tom, 25, at the 1977 Keeneland Fall Sale. He was considered, as horsemen always say, "just a nice horse." There wasn't much in his background to suggest more, since Bold Bidder had been an average sire. Even less noteworthy was the dam, Spectacular, who had career earnings of $16,633. Spectacular Bid was her first foal. Still, Tom Meyerhoff insists all of his family was thinking Triple Crown when the hammer dropped. As he says, "Anytime you spend more than $20,000, if you don't dream, why be in this business?" But does Harry Meyerhoff, the one-third owner whose voice clearly weighs more than that, fantasize about a Derby winner? "It's not a fantasy," says the retired Baltimore real-estate developer. He already has reserved hotel rooms in Louisville for next May.