"I noticed something was wrong at the three-eights pole," Ronnie Franklin said of Spectacular Bid. "Before, when I'd ask him (for a burst of speed) he'd give it. Not today. And when I pulled him up, I heard him gargle a little bit, like he wasn't getting breath right. He never choked up before."
This was in the jocks' room, after Coastal won the Belmont Stakes Bid was supposed to win and wrap up the Triple Crown his trainer had forecast months ago. And as Franklin was talking, his chief antagonist, Angel Cordero, was yelling: "I am happy . . . I never seen so many happy faces in here . . . Excuse me, happy faces."
Cordero had not won, but one of his Latin buddies, Ruben Hernandez, had. And as Cordero, whose feud with Franklin led to a fight here earlier this week, watched reruns of the race, he hinted he deserved an assist in Coastal's victory.
"Now don't put no words in my mouth," Cordero said as he settled onto a couch and watched the field break out of the gate on a nearby monitor. "You watch the race, but every time he (Bid) put everybody away he did it with an early lead.
"But you can't do that at a mile and a half."
Then, as the field, with Bid still in the lead, dashed down the stretch, Hernandez, on Coastal, suddenly broke by Cordero, on General Assembly. In a few strides, Coastal would slip by Bid and Franklin and pull away to victory.
"Now how in hell did that happen?" Cordero said, sarcasm fairly dripping. He added, "Look at your horse (to assembled reporters who had praised Bid as one of history's great horses). Superhorse. Super s - - -."
If Franklin had sensed a less than spectacular Bid even before the race, as he said, the jock also had appeared out of sorts. In the paddock, as Bid was in his usual prerace fit, kicking his stall, Franklin looked scared, like a 19-year-old who finally realized the magnitude of what he was about to try. He kept clutching his whip, using both hands.
But veteran race watchers agreed that while Franklin could have taken some measures to help Bid, one of them being to cut off Coastal's rail route, the horse was more to blame. Franklin was among the first to sense this.
"If I had messed up, he (trainer Bud Delp) would have been down there (in the unsaddling area)," Franklin said. "I would have got a foot up my butt. So I must not have messed up. I would have rode him the same way again.
"I feel numb, like crying. But I'm not going to. When Coastal went by me. I knew there was no way my horse would win. Have I felt worse? Yes. After the Florida Derby."
That was the appropriate reference, for Delp had threatened to throttle Franklin after that race in March. And Bid had won. In defeat today, Delp agreed with his jockey, saying, "No excuses. Ronnie rode him perfectly, the way I would have if I'd been the jockey."
Delp was several hundred yards from Franklin, not near his barn but where his horse was walking. The trainer and jockey had not spoken after the race - and when Delp heard Franklin's comments suggesting respiratory problems, he said:
"He (Bid) is walking good. He's not showing problems. But I'll talk it over with Ronnie. I hope he does (have physical trouble). But I have doubts. Coastal might have choked him up."
To anyone who would listen, Delp had bragged about his horse as few trainers ever had. He had called him the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle. And until today Delp had seemed more prophetic than arrogant, a man in firm command of a four-legged machine.
So what went wrong?
"In the paddock, he was no more (rank) than usual. He may have been in the post parade, but I don't think that took anything out of him. He was strong, but he just ran out of gas.
"That's racing. I've been beaten more than most people, but I've also won. I lost on a 1 to 5? Glad I didn't bet him. If you're not prepared to lose as a horse trainer, you'd better take up another trade."
And his braggadocio, the fallout sure to follow his high opinions of himself and his horse?
"It won't bother me. Nobody puts bread on my table except me. Just so they spell my name right, leave the "h" off the end. I'm sorry I got beat, but no excuses. Sure, his (Bid's) value might drop. Maybe a million or so (this caused laughter, for Delp had once forecast Bid's worth as $20 million). But we can take care of that.
"I'll have nothing but the best remembrances (of the Triple Crown try). I feel bad about not winning it, but we'll throw this one out, freshen him up (for the Travers) and bring him back."
Presumably, Delp's will be selected memories, not the cascade of boos that rolled over the track as Franklin brought Bid back to be unsaddled after the race. Surely, Franklin will recall the abuse - and paper bags - hurled at him as he fled to the jocks room.
And Cordero's biting tongue.
After the Florida Derby, Franklin had spoken of a Latin conspiracy, glancing toward one end of the jocks' room and spitting out, "Spicks." After the Preakness, on national television, Franklin had accused Cordero of unsportsmanlike riding. They had fought briefly here this week.
Today, Cordero had the final words, grabbing a microphone and shouting to Hernandez, "You make all the Spicks happy."
And as Delp walked toward his barn, he said, "The winners tell jokes; the losers say, 'Deal the cards.' I got three going Monday at Pimlico." CAPTION: Picture, Ruben Hernandez guides Coastal toward the wire to win the Belmont Stakes by 3 1/4 lenghts. At left, Sandy Hawley rides Golden Act to the place, a neck in front of Spectacular Bid and Ronnie Franklin, right. AP