Odd things often happen to Kentucky Derby winners who go mincing onto the Pimlico track with the Preakness in mind. They don't win the Preakness. It is the great booby trap of the Triple Crown races. More two-part winners of racing's greatest prize have come a cropper at Pimlico than in either the Derby or Belmont Stakes in the last 25 years.
Why this is so has produced more theories than the study of evolution: Pimlico's turns are sharper, favor certain types of runners; Preakness fields are smaller, offering truer races; late bloomers at Pimlico pounce on the Derby winners; the race is a sixteenth-mile shorter; the Preakness bands don't play as loud. Name your theory for Pimlico's non-conformist history.
None of this is by way of suggesting that anything on the track Preakness Day will finish in front of Spectacular Bid. He'll be in there Saturday with four of the same tiring crowd he whooshed by in the Derby. This one is taking on solid aspects of another Secretariat with his 10 victories in 10 stakes races.
As the fastest thing under a saddle, with the Derby already his conquest, Spectacular Bid has been unfairly cheated of some of his glory. His rider has often been more of a topic than the colt, and the more-watched. This is because Ronnie Franklin rode one bad race on him two months ago, and racing writers won't let him or anybody else forget it.
There was cause for this when young Franklin blundered twice in the Florida Derby, showing his greenness. Spectacular Bid had to rescue him with a super stretch run. His own trainer, Bud Delp, called the boy "an idiot," and there was wide speculation that he would be off Bid with the Flamingo and Kentucky Derby coming up.
The pragmatists said young Franklin had to come off the colt. Too much was at stake, including, besides the Derby, syndication that could run to $15 million. No time for sentiment. That's what Frank Whiteley, trainer of Tom Rolfe, said when he was aiming to replace regular rider Ron Turcotte with Willie Shoemaker in the 1965 Derby. "You never ride a Turcotte when you can get a Shoemaker," Whiteley explained.
But Buddy Delp, of all people, struck a blow for sentiment. That career curmudgeon, whose language could make a trooper blush, said Franklin would ride in the Derby. Some stories said that owner Harry Meyerhoff made the decision. Don't believe it. Meyerhoff does what Buddy Delp says to do with his horses.
There were some people who didn't like Franklin's winning ride on The Bid in the Derby. They pecked about here and there to find something wrong with it, like allowing longshots to cut him off in the run to the first turn, and electing finally to go to the outside to get clear sailing, and giving up ground.
The continued carping with Franklin's ride after the Derby win evoked the memory of Lu Gambino's touch-down for Maryland on an 88-yard kick runback in 1947. Perfectionist Coach Jim Tatum was still critical, saying Gambino just had not made full use of his blockers. "How was it for distance, Coach?" Gambino asked.
Delp, keeping horseman's hours, had departed the Pimlico track this morning long before the 10 a.m. arrival of this essayist. There was conversation, however, with Dick Delp, his brother and stable assistant. "Bud must have liked Ronnie's ride in the Derby," he said. "You didn't hear him blast Ronnie, did you? Bud blasts away when he don't like things."
Dick Delp mentioned one other thing. "They were looking to find fault with Franklin. I'll bet you that if Shoemaker or Arcaro had ridden the same kind of race on Spectacular Bid, they'd have called it a great, heady ride by the old master, keeping his horse out of trouble. That's what Ronnie did."
Actually, Delp did take young Franklin off The Bid. That was last summer when the colt went to New York for the Champagne Stakes. Because Franklin had never ridden in the Big Apple, Delp switched to old super pro Jorge Velasquez. But the second time Velasquez had the mount, he barely missed getting beat.
The Bid's groom, Herman Hall, remembered that this was at the Meadowlands, and Velasquez's ride scared the whole stable. "He said our colt ducked in at the finish," Hall said, "and he told Bud maybe they should put a one-eyed blinker on him." What Delp said to that suggestion, according to Hall, purpled the air for miles around. He put Franklin back on the colt, to stay.