As one of the most fascinating casts of characters in years approached Saturday's Kentucky Derby, no one felt the pressure more keenly than Ron Franklin, the rider of Spectacular Bid. Franklin says he has thought about it, that he knows the kind of questions he will face in Louisville this week. At age 19 he is used to tough questions, having survived one of the sharpest public tongue-lashings that any athlete in any sport has had to endure from someone on his side.
By contrast, a year ago Steve Cauthen, only 18, who eventually would win the Triple Crown with Affirmed, was already the hero of a book, his riding talent established. There were a few questions about whether he was too young to handle the Churchill Downs pressure, but nobody was questioning his intellect, his trainer wasn't calling him an "idiot" and prominent racing writers weren't going on radio shows to hurl other invectives at him.
Only Ron Franklin knows how well the psychic scars have healed following the Florida Derby, when he came close to being taken off Spectacular Bid after a rocky, error-filled ride. And only Ron Franklin will be called upon to cope with the intimidation from other jockeys once the gate opens at Churchill Downs.
Last week, after an easy seven-length win with Spectacular Bid in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, it was all shy smiles and confident words from Franklin.
As Ron spoke to the press in one corner of the jockeys' quarters, Darrel McHargue, who finished second aboard Lot O' Gold, looked across the room and talked about the coming week and what Franklin would be facing. "I've ridden in three Derbies and I know what goes through a rider's mind," McHargue said. "You spend a lot of sleepless nights waiting for the race. But at least, by winning the Blue Grass he can go out and walk on the street now. If he'd messed up, he might have lost the mount on the Derby favorite."
That is how it is for Franklin. Can he afford the slightest mistake? When has a jockey gone to the gate in the Derby under such extraordinary circumstances? Which adds to the drama of the first meeting of Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster, a race that rekindles memories of the fabled 1955 Derby, in which Swaps swept out of the West and beat the East's esteemed Nashua.
Flying Paster is a pure California horse. He is owned by Californian B.J. Ridder, was bred in California, is ridden by Don Pierce, one of the state's most skilled and experienced big-money riders, and is handled by Gordon Campbell, 60, one of the state's most successful trainers. Spectacular Bid, on the other hand, is all East. He was bred in Kentucky and is owned, trained and ridden by Marylanders: Harry, Teresa and Tom Meyerhoff; Bud Delp; and Franklin.
Spectacular Bid was as close as he has ever been to the West last Thursday when he galloped home in the $121,550 Blue Grass for his 10th consecutive stakes win. Flying Paster has competed no farther East than Inglewood, Calif., where three weeks ago he won the Hollywood Derby by 10 smashing lengths. Despite their geographical separation, Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are close together when it comes to their past performances. Very close.
Spectacular Bid has not lost a race since Aug. 20 last year. Flying Paster has lost once since Aug. 16, and that happened on March 17, when he gave away eight pounds to Pole Position in the San Felipe Handicap at Santa Anita. Every time Spectacular Bid or Flying Paster runs, cash registers ring merrily for their owners: Spectacular Bid has won $52,116 per start ($729,637 altogether); Flying Paster $51,218 ($717,060). Flying Paster has won his last five races by 36� lengths; Spectacular Bid's last five wins were by 35�.
The presence of two such horses has predictably cut down the size of this year's Derby field. As recently as March 1 there were 299 horses nominated at $100 each, but by the time the field goes under starter's orders, only six or seven other owners are expected to have put up the necessary $7,500. Yet some of those potential "other horses" offer interesting possibilities.