Closing day at Gulfstream Park fell this year on a Tuesday, a day long established as the worst on which to draw a crowd. Yet the presence of Spectacular Bid in the $200,000 Florida Derby, one of the major prep races leading up to the Triple Crown, lured 31,792 fans, more than had ever seen the race before. The attendance was directly attributable to the excitement generated by Spectacular Bid in Florida this winter and to what he is certain to continue doing in the weeks ahead.
Spectacular Bid won the Florida Derby by 4� lengths, a margin surpassed just once in 28 previous runnings of the 1?-mile race. With only the Flamingo and Blue Grass Stakes ahead of him before he steps into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 5, Spectacular Bid has solidified his position as the East's top 3-year-old and a colt capable of becoming the third Triple Crown winner in three years.
But the Florida Derby was a bewildering race. Spectacular Bid's time of 1:48[4/5] was two seconds slower than Gen. Duke's 1957 stakes record and 1[4/5] seconds slower than Alydar's winning time of a year ago, but the track was far from fast, and the race he was forced to run was a near disaster.
Two minutes after Spectacular Bid went under the finish line, a strange scene unfolded. As the colt was being led to the winner's circle, his trainer. Grover (Buddy) Delp, started marching alongside the strapping gray, screaming at 19-year-old jockey Ron Franklin. "You idiot!" Delp yelled. "You damned idiot! You almost got the horse killed out there." The jockey, voted the nation's top apprentice of 1978, hung his head as tears welled in his eyes.
Delp didn't stop with that outburst. He continued to berate Franklin and threatened to take him off the horse. As soon as word spread, several of the country's top jockeys tried to get the mount on Spectacular Bid. But by last Monday. Delp's anger had abated and he said Franklin would stay on the colt. In the days before. Harry Silbert, Bill Shoemaker's agent, twice made 5 a.m. calls to Delp, trying to secure the mount, and Darrell McHargue, the top money-winning rider of 1978, paid a visit to Delp's Gulfstream barn, as did Jacinto Vasquez. Last year Delp had replaced Franklin in the Champagne and Young America Stakes mainly because of inexperience—the horse had lost two of three at that point.
Delp brought Franklin onto the racetrack three years ago and put him on his first winner in 1978, a year in which the youngster won 262 races. Franklin even moved in with Delp, who has described the jockey as his "third son." In November, when exercise rider Michael Smith ran a horse up inside one ridden by Franklin during a morning workout at Laurel, Delp was accused of twice punching Smith and was suspended for 20 days by the Maryland stewards.
In the days leading up to the Florida Derby, Delp was predicting an easy win: "He may be the best horse ever to look through a bridle. Heck, the only young horse in the United States that belongs on the same track with him is that horse out in California, Flying Paster."
Spectacular Bid had raced over the Gulfstream track twice before the Florida Derby, winning the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes and the 1[1/16]-mile Fountain of Youth by a total of more than 12 lengths. His reputation as the top 2-year-old of 1978 plus some exceptionally fast winter workouts caused the trainers of numerous other classic candidates to back away from challenging him. While 23 opponents had been nominated for the Hutcheson, only three decided to test Spectacular Bid; from an original list of 32 possible starters for the Fountain of Youth just five fell under the starter's orders. When entries closed for the Florida Derby, again only five of 71 original candidates were in the gate.
While three of Spectacular Bid's Florida Derby opponents had won stakes, two of them. Sir Ivor Again and Fantasy 'N Reality, had done so in races restricted to horses bred in New York and Florida, and Medaille D'or had won his only stakes at Woodbine in Canada.
Thus, it seemed that the sole question about Spectacular Bid's richest race to date would be the extent of his winning margin. And later, after blasting Franklin for his ride, Delp maintained that his horse should have won "by 25 lengths." The official Racing Form chart of the Florida Derby tells precisely what happened: "Spectacular Bid banged into the left side of the gate at the start, was allowed to settle, moved along the inside going into the first turn, was steadied and altered course over Sir Ivor Again's heels midway through the turn, accelerated quickly along the backstretch, was forced to steady again leaving the backstretch while trying to get through along the inside, was steadied again midway through the turn, was eased back and to the outside, came four wide into the stretch, was hit six times with the whip righthanded at the head of the stretch and into the stretch, bore in slightly, was hit twice left-handed and drew well clear in the final sixteenth."