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Everything is ready. Around Lexington, the pastureland is green enough for Tipperary. At the Keeneland track, the elms, winter skeletons only a week ago, are misty with new growth. Spring was right on time in Kentucky this year, but the star was a little late. For 10 days the third stall in Barn 17 stood fresh, clean and empty, new straw for bedding at hand.
Twice, the DC-8 at Miami International Airport had been readied to fly the finest 3-year-old racehorse in America northward. Twice the journey was put off. But finally, as it should be for stars, everything was perfect—68° at Gulfstream Park in Florida, 68° at Keeneland. On Sunday, April 8, the colt walked calmly up the ramp from his van to the aircraft and was settled up front. He travels first class, of course, and, like any other first-class passenger, he is entitled to be irritated when things go wrong.
In this case, a faulty valve at takeoff caused hot air to flood his box stall for 15 minutes. He broke into a sweat and did some kicking. But the rest of the two-hour flight was fine. By midafternoon he was in his new stall at Keeneland and making short work of seven quarts of oats. The next morning he would gallop two miles, in preparation for the Blue Grass Stakes on April 26 and, on the heels of that, the great three-act drama of the Triple Crown.
The gray colt—"gray" is unworthily dull; call him gun-metal shot with copper—is ready. Spectacular Bid has moved to center stage.
When Spectacular Bid went south last December, to winter and take one of the classic routes to Churchill Downs, his credentials were imposing. He was the 2-year-old champion and the winter-book favorite for the Derby. Less than six weeks earlier, at the Laurel Futurity in Maryland, he had shattered his Eastern rivals, General Assembly and Tim the Tiger, who had been depicted, prematurely, as the new Affirmed and Alydar. He had won by an effortless 8½ lengths in track-record time.
Vital statistics: 1976 gray colt by Bold Bidder out of Spectacular by Promised Land; $37,000, Keeneland Fall Sales. Owner: Hawksworth Farm. Breeder: Mrs. W. Jason and Mrs. W. Gilmore. Trainer: Grover G. Delp. To which might be added: earnings, $649,980; present insured value, $14,170,000; present market value, impossible to guess.
A lot of money indeed to bundle into a big horse van for a 23-hour road trip from Laurel to Gulfstream Park: just that happened, though, when Bid headed south last Dec. 6 and Bud Delp blue-skied happily about the smoothness of the trip. As is his wont. He admitted later (as is also his wont) that the ride had been a scary one. Though Bid was traveling in a separate compartment up front, another of the string (there were six other horses aboard) had become agitated, and had to be shipped back to Maryland.
But everything else was blue sky. Delp flew down ahead of Spectacular Bid and led him into Barn 5 when he arrived at Gulfstream on a Thursday. By Sunday the colt was galloping on the track. "Strong, supergood!" crowed Delp. "He acclimated great. There was a mild autumn in Maryland; the change didn't hurt him. We were in no hurry. We had until the first week in February"—the Hutcheson, Bid's first prep, was on Feb. 7—"and we just wanted to be sure he was in good flesh. We let up on him, let him relax. Gallop a mile and a half, two miles, nice and easy, just as he likes to do. Takes about as much out of him as walking around the barn three times takes out of me."
The truth was that the take-it-easy policy suited Delp as much as it did the horse. Most of January he had spent around the swimming pool watching TV—All in the Family preferred—at the villa he had rented in Golden Beach, a wealthy section of private houses set between the condominiums and hotels of Hallandale and North Miami Beach.
It was as pleasant a place as Delp could have chosen to sit out a three-week suspension that he had received for hitting an exercise boy at Laurel back in November (the Laurel stewards handed down his suspension but there was a reciprocal agreement with Florida). Delp had punched the rider because, he contended, the latter had endangered both Spectacular Bid and his jockey, Ronnie Franklin. The sudden flash of temper was characteristic. So was his immediate admission that he had been wrong to hit the boy.