What's wrong with Spectacular Bid?

On the face of it, the question seems absurd. The favorite for the Kentucky Derby has won nine races in a row. He captured his most recent start, the Flamingo Stakes, at Hialeah on Saturday, by the greatest margin in the race's history.

That 12-length triumph left the 21,089 spectators cheering wildly and journalists spewing superlatives, but the performance was Spectacular Bid's worst of the year. Even with jockey Ron Franklin whipping him, he covered the 1-1/8 miles in an unimpressive 1:48 2/5 and he needed 13 1/5 seconds to run the last eighth of a mile.

If he had been facing any decent opposition, Spectacular Bid's margin of victory would have been perilously narrow. But since he was running against horses who belong in the midweek feature race at Bowie rather than the Flamingo Stakes he could go off form without anybody noticing it.

Of course, any superstar, whether human or equine, can have an off day. If Spectacular Bid wins his next start, The Bluegrass Stakes, on April 26, in characteristically brilliant fashion, his slow time in the Flamingo will be shown to be merely a minor aberration in his form cycle.

But the form of horses usually changes in long, gradual cycles, and handicappers analyzing this year's Triple Crown should not forget a lesson they learned in 1976. Honest Pleasure won the Flamingo that year in record time with a truly magnificent performance. He was hailed as a super horse. He won his next race in slower time. He won the The Bluegrass Stakes in even slower time.

He lost the Derby as a 2-to-5 favorite and didn't win another race until August. The tipoff for this decline had come when he was still winning, when his running times began to slow.

Could Spectacular Bid possibly have peaked so early in the season? The answer is emphatically yes.

The colt has won all four of his starts in Florida this winter without being seriously challenged. But instead of letting him cruise to easy victories that would gradually get him ready for the major challenges ahead, Franklin has asked Spectacular Bid for a near-maximum effort every time.

His ride in the Flamingo was typical. Franklin was pumping on Spectacular Bid as he came out of the gate and pumping all the way around the track. The colt responded by opening a 10-length lead as he entered the stretch. At this point almost any jockey alive would have put his mount under wraps and let him coast to the wire. Incredibly, Franklin starting whipping, and cracked Spectacular Bid six times through the stretch.

This was the action of a jockey with no self-confidence. Having been the target of so much criticism, Franklin rode as if he could not afford to take any chances -- even with a 10-length lead.

Franklin's lack of self-confidence is fully justified. People who saw only his embarrassingly bad ride in the Florida Derby and his passable ride in the Flamingo might conclude that the youngster had committed one bad mistake but regained his composure.

In fact, since the Florida Derby, Franklin has been riding worse than ever. He has been running his mounts into walls of horses and losing control of his horses in the stretch. If he were steering cars instead of thoroughbreds, his license would be revoked for reckless driving instead of the mere five-day suspension he is serving right now for one such bad trip.

Trainer Bud Delp has permitted Franklin to ride the way he wants. He probably lacks confidence in the jockey and does not want him to take any chances, either. And Delp seems to feel that nothing can stop Spectacular Bid's relentless march through the Triple Crown series anyway. He talks as if his colt is an invincible, indestructible machine instead of a fleshand-blood creature.

But not even a superhorse can sustain one great performance after another. Secretariat ran only moderately well during the early stages of his 3-year-old season, peaked during the Triple Crown, and was off and on thereafter.

Spectacular Bid has already run two races -- the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby, which represented efforts almost equal to Secretariat's best. If he is the greatest thoroughbred who ever lived (which may be possible), he may be merely setting the stage for performances of unimaginable brilliance.

But there is also the real possibility that Franklin and Delp have, in the popular metaphor of the race track, "squeezed the lemon" too much already, and that when they ask Spectacular Bid for three all-out efforts in the Triple Crown, he won't be able to deliver.