It was 43 years ago on September 8 that Spectacular Bid won the Marlboro Cup in his first start against older horses. If you thought you knew the complete story of Bid and those who guided him through his Hall of Fame career you were mistaken. Jack Gilden’s new book “The Fast Ride” provides both the memorable and sordid details in revealing the untold story of one of the all-time great Thoroughbreds. Bid’s true greatness also is detailed here by yours truly through stats and recollections.~ Steve Haskin
By Steve Haskin
I lived through the Spectacular Bid years. I covered his Preakness for Thoroughbred Record as a photographer and was at his Belmont, Marlboro Cup, Jockey Club Gold Cup vs. Affirmed, and walkover. I hung out with Buddy Delp after the Belmont, interviewed him on the phone at his home, and wrote several columns about the colt. I even visited Bid at Claiborne Farm and years later at Milfer Farm in Unadilla, New York.
Yes, I knew jockey Ronnie Franklin was a raw immature street kid with no experienceand was being thrown into the fire too early. And I knew that trainer Buddy Delp’s braggadocio and occasional outbursts knew no limits. And I knew owner Harry Meyerhoff’s second wife Teresa was much younger than him and that they made for quite an odd couple in outward appearance. But they were all supporting players to the horse Delp called “the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle.”
However, I recently found out I only thought I lived through the Spectacular Bid years. Author Jack Gilden in his book “The Fast Ride: Spectacular Bid and the Undoing of a Sure Thing” convinced me I hadn’t. So now after reading the book I amend that statement by saying I existed through the Spectacular Bid years, witnessing only the performance of the lead character on stage and not knowing the full extent of what was happening behind the curtain. Yes, I cheered, marveled, and stood in appreciation at each bravura performance by this magnificent superstar. But offstage, the human frailties of the supporting cast went unnoticed, until now, more than four decades later. Although the book did not alter Spectacular Bid’s accomplishments in any way, it certainly altered the narrative of his story that is now being told for the first time.
“The Fast Ride” is not a typical biography of a horse, as was Peter Lee’s well-chronicled book on Spectacular Bid a few years ago, as it skimmed over a number of Bid’s races. What it is is a riveting book about how a horse with a fairly modest pedigree and price tag, ridden by a young inexperienced jockey not equipped emotionally for such a big stage and trained by a brash Maryland hardboot, can go on to become one the all-time greats despite the shortcomings and self-destructive actions of those around him.
Gllden went behind the scenes of “The Spectacular Bid show” and revealed the dark side of one of the greatest shows in racing history. He did make a number of detours, spending several pages on the background of supportingplayers like jockeys Angel Cordero and Jacinto Vasquez, which most racing fans are already familiar with. But this book is geared toward both racing fans and readers in general who would be interested in their backgrounds, as well as the backgrounds of many of the horsemen and horsewomen who had Bid pass through their hands and helped guide him toward his place in racing’s pantheon. In the end, we know who all the characters are, minor and major, and the roll they played in telling the complete story.
Gilden was fortunate that those close to Ron Franklin, who died in 2018 at age 58, were so revealing, especially Delp’s son Gerald , who is in poor health and was willing to strip away all the layers and disclose his own weaknesses and years of addiction, as well as the struggles of a vulnerable and immature Franklin. This refers to his and Franklin’s excessive drug use during and after the Bid years, which shockingly was supervised by Buddy Delp, who often partook in the rapidly growing ritual. This was a son by telling his story after all these years was freeing himself of his demons at the expense of his own father and an “adopted” brother who was taken into the family’s home.
Delp also was said to be a heavy drinker who could get mean while intoxicated. As Gilden wrote, “It got to the point where Gerald, who arrived at work at 5 a.m. every day, dreaded his father’s stumbling appearance at 8 or 9 because the old man was already reeking of booze and paranoia.”
Another invaluable voice in the book was Cathy Rosenberger, who was Gilden’s eyes and ears into Buddy Delp’s organization. She was able to reveal a great deal about Franklin when he first arrived at Pimlico, knowing very little about working around horses. She alsointroduced him to a number of key sources in the book.
Gilden comes at you with machine gun-like swiftness, shooting holes in all the misconceptions we have had about Spectacular Bid’s career in regard to the people who helped orchestrate it. However, none of their failings affected Bid’s performances on the track.
The author takes us to Belmont Park on the morning of the Belmont Stakes after Delp was informed by groom Mo Hall that Bid had stepped on a safety pin in his stall. He attempts to put the puzzle together as to what transpired that entire day and the uncertainties that followed regarding whether they should run the colt. We still can’t be 100 percent sure to what the extent the infamous safety pin incident affected the colt’s performance and Franklin’s fragile psyche in the race, but Gilden paints as clear a picture as possible. Bid would wind up going after an 80-1 longshot early in the race and never looked like the horse who won the Derby and Preakness, as he had little left in the stretch, finishing third to Peter Pan winner Coastal.
Let me interject here my own discussions with Delp regarding the race and its aftermath: I remember when Delp eventually broke the news of the pin to the press he was pretty much branded a liar, and, while he understood their skepticism, he said his mother “cried like a baby” at the accusations. Even long after the race Delp would tear up and become emotional when discussing his decision to tell Franklin about the safety pin, which he felt affected his ride. However, many still scoff at the safety pin excuse.
Delp did tell me that after returning to Maryland from the Belmont, he called noted Kentucky veterinarian, Alex Harthill, who told him what to do about the foot, and said if there was no improvement in seven days he’d have to come to Maryland. Seven days after the Belmont Bid seemed fine, but the next day the colt was dead lame.
When Harthill arrived, he used a miniature plane to remove little bits of the hoof at a time. When he noticed a black spot embedded deep in the hoof he bore into it with an electrical drill.
Delp recalled, “Suddenly this thick black stuff starts shooting out of there like a fountain. It was completely infected. Doc looked up at me said, ‘Hey Bud, where are all those sonofabitches who called you a liar?’ He told me if we had left it alone much longer he likely would have lost the foot, and possibly worse.”
According to the trainer, after Harthill’s drilling procedure, he then had blacksmith Jack Reynolds fly in and fit Bid with a special piece of aluminum on his shoe. Delp said he fed him gelatin to build up the bone and medicated the coronet band to stimulate blood circulation and help the hoof grow back.
A little over two months after the Belmont, Bid returned to the races, winning an allowance race at Delaware Park by 17 lengths in track record time with new jockey Bill Shoemaker aboard. A great horse was about to grow into a legend.
One other note about the controversial and often volatile Harthill, who is vividly portrayed in the book — according to Gilden he had treated Bid before the Belmont, but had to sneak into the track in the trunk of a car because he was banned from the premises.
One of the most compelling parts of the book was the ongoing feud between Franklin and Cordero that resulted in fisticuffs in the jocks room. Cordero knew how to get into your head, and Franklin, still an undisciplined teenager, opened the door wide for him and then tried to close it the only way a kid growing up in a tough neighborhood knew how.
We also learn a great deal more about Harry Meyerhoff than we knew, especially in regard to replacing Franklin following the Belmont. According to Gilden, Meyerhoff blamed Franklin for Bid’s defeat, feeling he was too fearful of Cordero during the race, and his reluctance to be associated with a jockey who was a known drug abuser, even though Meyerhoff and Teresa were recreational drug users themselves. The last thing Meyerhoff wanted was for the scrutiny into Franklin’s use of drugs to eventually trace to him and Teresa.
But the main storyline of the book in addition to Bid was the self-destruction of two human beings, one of whom had the skills to be one of the top riders in the country, but followed those he trusted into the deepest abyss and was never able to get out. As a result he faded into obscurity, as did Gerald Delp, who might have become a top trainer following in his father’s footsteps. Instead it was those footsteps that led him astray, resulting in continued drug use, two failed marriages, and serious financial trouble. Gilden described it as “the father who had engineered the son’s metamorphosis from child to addict.”
I don’t know Gilden, but in addition to his crisp writing style, it is obvious he has the knack of making people comfortable enough that they are willing to open up to him and tell him things even he wasn’t prepared for. You could almost feel the book coming to life for him as he sat there listening to them ripping off the band-aids exposing the under belly of the Spectacular Bid story.
For those who don’t know or cannot appreciate the true greatness of Bid, let us deviate from the world of literature and into straight fact, with a personal touch added.
Spectacular Bid won Grade I stakes on the lead and he won coming from 10 lengths back. He was the ultimate racing machine and proved it at ages 2, 3, and 4. Following two defeats early on at age 2, he won 24 of his next 26 starts, with his only two defeats coming at 1 1/2 miles, which included the safety pin incident. He ran seven furlongs in a near-world-record 1:20 flat and 1 1/4 miles in a world-record (on dirt) 1:57 4/5, a time which has not been equaled in 42 years. He broke seven track records and equaled another at seven different tracks and at distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. In addition to the World’s Playground Stakes, in which he ran seven furlongs in a blazing 1:20 4/5 over a dead racetrack, believed to be the fastest seven furlongs ever run by a 2-year-old, he ran 1 1/8 miles in a track-record 1:45 4/5 at Hollywood Park and a track record 1:46 1/5 at Arlington Park, both carrying 130 pounds, and 1:46 3/5 at Belmont Park as a 3-year-old, defeating older horses. He also ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:40 2/5 over a slow track at Hollywood Park carrying 132 pounds.
In all, Spectacular Bid won at 15 different racetracks in nine different states, and carried 130 pounds or more to victory five times, while rattling off 12-race and 10-race winning streaks. It is the only time in memory that has been accomplished. In his only other defeat at 1 1/2 miles, he was beaten by the previous year’s Triple Crown winner Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup after being forced to miss his prep in the Woodward Stakes due to a virus and getting a questionable ride from Bill Shoemaker, who broke a step slowly and allowed Affirmed to crawl on the lead in a four-horse field. After being passed by Coastal on the inside, Bid battled back and tried hard to catch Affirmed, but was beaten three-quarters of a length.
As his coat lightened as a 4-year-old, he was like a ghostly figure hurtling down one stretch after another in isolated splendor. With his head held high and his powerful legs stretching across the racing universe he not only went undefeated in nine starts in 1980, there was never a horse in front of him at the eighth pole.
Bid, however, had been suffering from a nagging sesamoid problem that was discovered after the January 5 Malibu Stakes and was present throughout his entire undefeated 4-year-old campaign. Daily tubbings and Butazolidan helped, but following his victory in the Amory Haskell Handicap under 132 pounds, Shoemaker noticed he didn’t feel 100% right. Delp just wanted to get him to the Jockey Club Gold Cup to close out his career, and continued treating him and making sure he was walking sound. But first came the Woodward Stakes, which wound up being run in a rare walkover when Bid was the only horse entered in the race. Delp instructed Bill Shoemaker to just have him cruise around the track and let him get a good work no matter how long it took him. His priority was protecting the horse in order to make the Gold Cup.
But Shoemaker, despite never fully asking him to run at any point, still allowed Bid to close each of his final two quarters in a mind-boggling :24 1/5. Horses rarely come home their last quarter that fast in a normal race going 1 1/4 miles, never mind closing their last two quarters that fast running against no one. By running his mile and a quarter in 2:02 2/5, faster than previous Hall of Fame Woodward winners Buckpasser, Kelso, and Sword Dancer, Bid re-aggravated his sesamoid injury, which forced his retirement.
Bid remained a major part of Delp’s life until the day he died, as he would retreat to his den, sit in his easy chair, and look up at a vision that would brighten his day. There above him was the face that became the focus of his life for three years. Wherever Delp went, from Florida to California to Illinois, he would take the painting of Bid.
“It’s a head shot of him looking out of his stall, and he’s pricking his ears,” Delp said 20 years later back in 1999. “I look at that painting every day and see that familiar left eye looking back at me. That’s just the way I remember him every morning when I got to the barn. It’s as if it was 20 years ago and he’s looking at me, waiting for his morning donut. He wanted that donut and in fact demanded it. He loved the powdered sugar.”
Reading the book sparked my own memories…
I remember photographing him at the Preakness on assignment for the Thoroughbred Record. With my future wife Joan positioned on the outside rail and me on the photographer’s stand in the infield, we watched him striding out so powerfully as he whizzed by us.”
I also thought back to being in Joan’s office (when she was public relations coordinator for NYRA) overlooking the finish line at Belmont Park watching Bid complete his historic walkover. Eight days later we were married.
In 1998, Joan and I went to visit The Bid at Milfer Farm in Unadilla, N.Y., along with our then 14-year-old daughter, Mandy. He no longer bore even the slightest resemblance to that charcoal gray 3-year-old with the star on his forehead. But he still held his head high with pride, and when he looked at you, that fire and spirit of his youth still shone through. He was Spectacular Bid, and he still knew it. And you knew it.
Milfer Farm owner, Dr. Jon Davis, told us at the time, “I still get goose bumps standing next to him.”
As did I that day at Milfer Farm, seeing him interact so playfully with my daughter. I have a photo album I can open, with photos of Mandy and Bid, and show it to her. And I can tell her, “You remember these pictures of you with this magnificent white horse named Spectacular Bid? Well, his trainer once called him the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle. It was quite a preposterous comment at the time. But who’s to say he wasn’t right?”
Yes, Delp could be outrageous in some of his comments and some of his actions and those close to him knew it all too well.
As Delp said, “I never once blew my own horn. I only blew the horse’s horn. But, hell, he ran a lot faster than I talked.”
But Delp also knew how to listen, just as he had listened to Spectacular Bid. What the horse told him can be found in the pages of the history books.
In Gilden’s new fascinating book Delp is portrayed in many ways and you can make of him what you wish — a Hall of Fame trainer who was blessed with the horse of a lifetime, someone who could be brazen and insolent, or someone whose actions in his own home were darker than anyone knew.
“The Fast Ride” also strips Ronnie Franklin clean to the bone, unveiling a troubled, vulnerable, immature, but talented young rider who like many children in their fantasies had hopped aboard a beautiful rocking horse and was able to make it go faster and faster until it seemed out of control. But in Franklin’s case that rocking horse was real and it was Franklin who would be out of control.
Secretariat died in 1989, then Alydar in 1990, Forego in 1997, Affirmed in 2001, Seattle Slew in 2002, and The Bid in 2003. Just like that they were all gone, and with them the end of racing’s golden era. We will never see the likes of Spectacular Bid again, in what he accomplished at 2, 3, and 4.
Franklin, Delp, and Meyerhoff are also gone, but thanks to Jack Gilden and his quest to unlock the true story behind an equine legend we were able to find a silent voice waiting to shout to the world in Gerald Delp, who could have uttered Ishmael’s closing line in Moby Dick: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Photos courtesy of Maryland Jockey Club, Milt Toby/Blood-Horse, Bob Coglianese, and Steve Haskin. Steve will be on vacation next with the Askin Haskin column returning Sept. 26
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