This winter, I had the opportunity to test a long-held thesis of mine: that Maryland's Big Three trainers are grossly overrated, that they owe their success more to the size of their operations than to their skill as horsemen.

Bud Delp, Dick Dutrow and King Leatherbury annually rank among the top five race-winning trainers in the nation. They can achieve this feat because they are allotted so many stalls by the Maryland tracks, and can crush their opposition by sheer force of numbers.

The Big Three have a tacit agreement not to claim horses from each other, giving them a further unfair competitive edge. And they possess much power within Maryland racing circles.

Just once, I often said, I would like to see one of the Big Three compete under neutral conditions, outside of Maryland with a stable no larger than anybody else's. When those circumstances finally arose this winter, I knew Bud Delp was heading for an embarrassing comeuppance.

When Spectacular Bid established hinself as the best horse of his age group, Delp decided to take him to Florida and prepare him for the Kentucky Derby in an environment more suitable than Bowie. He took 23 other horses with him to Gulfstream Park.

There Delp competed against Allen Jerkensand Woody Stephens, both members of racing's Hall of Fame; against other aces like LeRoy Jolley, Smiley Adams and T.J. Kelly. And for once Delp would be at a numerical disadvantage. Talented Stanley Hough runs a year-round Florida operation on a scale comparable to Delp's in Maryland.

And yet, when the Gulfstream meeting was over, the winner of the training title was Bud Delp. He had done practically everything right. He won with sprinters, with routers, with cheap claimers and high-class stock. He claimed astutely. He brought horses back from layoffs in sharp condition. He kept them in consistent form throughout the season.

He took a $20,000 claimer named Seethreepeo and developed him into one of the better 3-year-old sprinters in Florida. He transformed Misty Eyed Scholar from a $3,000 claimed into one capable of winning for $20,000.

Delp won the training championship by saddling 15 winners out of only 55 starters. Hough, the local kingpin, ran 96 horses and won with 13.

Delp never trained so well in his life, and his inspiration was surely Spectacular Bid.This is a familiar phenomenon.

When Lucien Laurin had Secretariat, he developed a barn full of other stakes winners the same year. Laz Barrera did the same when he was training Bold Forbes. Delp had an explanation for this pattern of success: "When you have a great horse, you want to be as good as the horse."

Whatever the reason, Delp obviously has a hot hand now, and, as every gambler knows, success invariably begets success. A gambler on a winning streak seems to be imbues with the mysterious knack of making all the right decisions. Hot trainers do the same.

So far this season, Delp has made no noticeable mistakes with Spectacular Bid (except, of course, for his choice of jockeys). At the end of his Florida campaign, the colt seemed to be tailing off and he evidently needed a slight rest before getting ready for the Kentucky Derby. Delp gave him a series of slow workouts, one of them so slow as to trigger suspicions that the was ailing.

Then, on Tuesday, Delp sent Spectacular Bid seven-eighths of a mile in sensational 1:22 3/5. It would be hard for a second-guesser to conceive of a better way to prepare the colt for next Thursday's Blue Grass Stakes, and then for the Derby. Plenty of pitfalls lie in any horse's road to the Derby, but Delp is still riding out his hot streak.