Spectacular Bid proved today that he could overcome the worst sort of adversity. He overcame his jockey, Ron Franklin.
Despite a performance by the 19-year-old rider that ranged from bad judgment to panic, Spectacular Bid ran away with Gulfstream Park's $200,000 Florida Derby by 4 1/2 lengths over Lot O' Gold. But the details of the colt's eighth victory will be quickly eclipsed by speculation over Franklin's future on the horse.
Trainer Bud Delp did nothing to discourage that speculation. "Ronnie screwed it up," Delp said. "After the race I told him how cumb I thought he rode the horse. I think I called him an idiot."
The problems for Franklin and Spectacular Bid began the instant the race began. The colt banged against the left side of the gate and thus didn't show his customary early speed.
For a short time, Franklin remained cool. As the horses raced to the first turn he dropped to the rail and let Spectacular Bid settle into stride, positioned fifth in the seven-horse field. On the turn he chose to drive up inside Sir Ivor Again, but suddenly he found there wasn't enough room and he checked the colt and swung him outside.
"If he'd just kept him parked on the outside," Delp lamented, "he would have exploded around these horses and won by 25 lengths." But Franklin took Spectacular Bid back to the rail, and when he got onto the backstretch he suddenly put him into high gear.
Spectacular Bid was flying, but he was flying toward trouble. A few lengths ahead of him, Musical Phantasy held the lead along the rail, with Lot O' Gold and Fantasy 'N Reality abreast of him. When Spectacular Bid charged up toward them, he had no room to go by.
"When we attempted to get through along the inside," Franklin said, "the hole closed." He interpreted this difficulty with a conspiracy theory. "It was six riders against one," he said. "They were clocking me."
When he could find no room to pass the leaders, Franklin had to put on the brakes, drop back and then try to circle the leaders.After so much travail, most thoroughbreds would have been effectively eliminated from contention. But Spectacular Bid responded immediately, swooped by the leaders running four wide on the turn, and drew away from Lot O' Gold and the third-place finisher Fantasy N' Reality.
Spectacular Bid covered the mile and one-eighth in 1:48 4/5 over a somewhat dull Gulfstream track, excellent time under the circumstances. He paid $2.10 to win and set up a $2.80 perfecta payoff and a record-low $9.60 trifecta.
Franklin's dreadful ride today was not unprecedented. Last year, as an apprentice, he contributed heavily to Spectacular Bid's only two defeats, encouraging Delp to replace him with the respected veteran Jorge Valasquez. But after Velasquez had ridden him to two straight victories, the trainer surprised the racing world by switching back to Franklin.
This move was motivated more by sentiment than rationality, for Franklin lives with the Delp family and the trainer usually talks of him like a son. Delp felt that Spectacular Bid was so superior to his opposition that his choice of a jockey was almost irrelevant.
In the aftermath of the Florida Derby, he seemed to feel differently. "When you're running against horses like Flying Paster and General Assembly (two of Spectacular Bid's likely challengers in the Kentucky Derby), you can't afford to make mistakes like this. I've been watching races for a long, long time and Ronnie really screwed it up.
"I'm going to have to sit down and talk to the owners about it tomorrow. But if (Bill) Shoemaker calls me, I won't hang up on him... Ronnie might find himself riding at Bowie instead of Churchill Downs."
If Franklin's future appears uncertain, Spectacular Bid's appears to be boundless. While the colt had displayed brilliant speed in his previous triumphs, he had won so easily that he had not had an opportunity to display his character. Franklin's ineptitude gave him that chance, and the jockey recognized it.
"After today," Franklin said, "Spectacular Bid has to be the greatest horse that ever lived."