For a horse who has won 12 of his last 13 races, Spectular Bid still has a lot of skeptics.
They pointed out that he has beaten only 3-year-olds of uncertain quality, and has not run especially fast in doing it. They hoot at trainer Bud Delp's claim that a safety pin caused his defeat in the Belmont Stakes.
These doubts took form when Racing Secretary Lenny Hale issued his controversial set of weights for Saturday's $300,000 Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park. By decreeing that Affirmed would have to spot Bid nine pounds in order to equalize the horses' chances, Hale was saying that Bid was not in the same class with his older rival.
At 5:42 p.m., Spectacular Bid will have his chance to answer this insult. Although Affirmed is skipping the race because of trainer Laz Barrer's displeasure with the weights, Spectacular Bid will be facing five tough rivals in Coastal, Star de Naskra, General Assembly, Cox's Ridge and Text. And he ought to recoup the prestige he lost when Coastal upset him here three months ago.
Delp maintains that Spectacular Bid would have won the Belmont by 10 lengths and solidified his reputation as a superhorse if he hadn't stepped on a safety pin the morning of the race. Whether the pin caused his defeat has been a subject of speculation ever since, but Bid clearly did not run his true race that afternoon. He was not only beaten by Coastal, but also by Golden Act, whom he had trounced in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
"The Belmont knocked the hell out of the horse," Kelp said. Spectacular Bid's schedule was seriously disrupted by the infection in his foot, but Delp said he got the colt back into training with the aid of a special aluminum plate that covered the infection.
He finally returned to competition in a prep race at Delaware Park last week and showed that he is back in peak form. Bid devastated his rivals by 17 lengths and ran two seconds faster than It's In The Air, the swift 3-year-old filly who won a stakes race on the same afternoon.
Spectacular Bid has trained sharply since that race. "He's never been better," Delp said. "He's in better sahpe than he was before the Belmont and at that time he was in the best shape of his life. If I get beat, there are no excuses."
Th:re is yet another reason for Spectacular Bid to run the race of his life Saturday: his jockey. Usually a change of riders can have only a marginal effect on a horse's performance. But when the riders in question are Ron Franklin and Bill Shoemaker, the impact may be enormous. Franklin lost so much ground on the turns in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness that he cost his horse several lengths. That won't happen with Shoemaker. "Shoe fits him like a glove," Delp said.
While Spectacular Bid is ready for a maximum performance in the Marlboro Cup, the same cannot be said for his three principal rivals -- Coastal, General Assembly and Star de Naskra.
Coastal has compiled a perfect six-for-six record this season, but when he won the Belmont Stakes he caught Spectacular Bid at the moment when he was most vulnerable. Coastal was just peaking, while Bid was at the end of a long, tiring campaign.
Now the situation has changed. Bid's prep race has put him on edge for the Marlboro, while Coastal hasn't raced for five weeks.
If General Assembly can duplicate his last start, his 15-length victory in the Travers Stakes, he can win the Marlboro Cup. He could, in fact, beat almost any horse who has ever lived. But all the conditions favored him that day: a sloppy Saratoga track that he loved, an advantageious post position, a field devoid of frontrunners who could challenge him for the lead. These conditions won't exist Saturday, and Spectacular Bid should be able to beat General Assembly for the sixth straight time.
Star de Naskra is the best older horse in the field, and his age is an asset. When a 4-year-old carries the same weight as a 3-year-old (as Star de Naskra and Bid do), he ordinarily has a significant edge. But Star de Naskra's best races have been at seven furlongs or a mile. His races at the Marlboro distance of 1-1/8 miles have not suggested that he can handle the likes of Spectacular Bid or Coastal.
Spectacular Bid should win the Marlboro, although his anticipated victory will be slightly marred by the absence of Affirmed Trainer Laz Barrera has received some sharp criticism for ducking the 133-pound weight assignment. Coastal's trainer, David Whiteley, lashed out at him for "poor sportsmanship" and "tastelessness."
There is one great cause for regret that Affirmed won't be in the field. At the weights, he would not have had a prayer of winning, and Spectacular Bid would have offered a tremendous betting opportunity. Now the potential for profit is gone from the Marlboro Cup, and Spectacular Bid's admirers will have to be content to see the horse reclaim the recognition he deserves.