Before his colt Affirmed took on Spectacular Bid, trainer Laz Barrera spoke with ingenuous enthusiasm about the match up. "This is a great race," he said. "Two great horses. And two great trainers."
In fact, it was the battle of wits between the trainers which decided the outcome of the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Saturday. Affirmed scored a three-quarter-length victory, not because he is superior to Spectacular Bid, but because Barrera outsmarted his rival Bud Delp.
Barrera operated this fall like a cool poker player, folding his hand when he thought he didn't have an edge, and finally pushing his chips into the pot when he held four aces. Delp, meanwhile, was making one miscalculation after another.
No one race had been prescribed as the battleground for Affirmed and Spectacular Bid. The two colts could have met in any or all of the events that comprise New York's fall championship series -- the Marlboro Cup, the Woodward Stakes and the Gold Cup. They might have met in a big-money match race that the Meadowlands Race Track was trying to arrange. It was each trainer's job to pick the right spot for his horse.
Barrera declined to run Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup because he thought the weight assignments were unfavorable to his horse. In his absence, Spectacular Bid cruised to an easy victory.
But passing the Marlboro gave Barrera a new problem in the Woodward. He has conceded a big edge in conditioning to Spectacular Bid. Affirmed had not run a competitive race in months, while Bid had just had the perfect prep for the Woodward. Barrera had to be worried -- until Delp solved his problem for him.
Delp chose not to enter Spectacular Bid in the Woodward. He said that a slight fever had set back his colt's training, but he had already given indications that he didn't want to run in the Woodward anyway.
The fever may have been just an excuse. Delp wanted the great confrontation to take place in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
By doing this, he ceded to Affirmed the advantages that would have been Bid's in the Woodward. Now Affirmed would come into the race with the edge in condition. His victory in the Woodward set him up perfectly for the Gold Cup's 1 1/2 miles, while Bid would not have had a race in the last four weeks. Furthermore, they would be running at a distance which was optimal for Affirmed but chancy for Spectacular Bid.
Why would Delp put his horse in such an unfavorable spot, especially when millions of dollars in stud value was hanging on the outcome of this one race? The trainer has often displayed a kind of bravado in his handling of the horse, as he did when he let the woefully incompetent Ron Franklin ride him through the Triple Crown.
Delp believed so strongly in the invincibility of Bid, whom he described this winter as "the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle," that he never thought it would be necessary to manage him cautiously. (It is hard to imagine Delp ducking the Marlboro Cup because he didn't like the weight assignments).
By taking on Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Delp could accomplish everything he wanted in one swoop. He could prove that Bid was the best horse in America; he could prove that Bid could win at 1 1/2 miles, and in so doing he could verify his contention that Bid had lost the Belmont Stakes because he had stepped on a safety pin.
Having committed himself to the Gold Cup, Delp faced a tough tactical problem. Affirmed was going to be practically unbeatable if he could take an easy early lead and set a slow pace. Spectacular Bid was the only horse in the small field who could possibly pressure him early.
The trouble was that Spectacular Bid has not been a fast-starting horse this year. Delp trained him for stamina, teaching him to relax in the early stages of his races, and Bid learned his lessons well. He always seemed to need a half mile to get into high gear.
This situation was similar to the one Foolish Pleasure faced in his match race against Ruffian. Trainer LeRoy Jolley knew that Foolish Pleasure was not as quick as the filly, as he also knew that early speed is essential in a match-race situation. So he gave his colt an extraordinarily fast workout that sharpened his speed and enabled Foolish Pleasure to run head and head with Ruffian.
But Delp made no noticeable effort to improve Spectacular Bid's early speed. As a result, Affirmed was able to take the lead by running his first quarter in a slow 25 seconds. While Affirmed was cruising, Bill Shoemaker was pumping on Bid just to stay close. And he could never catch up.
For Spectacular Bid and Delp, the loss was certainly no disgrace. Bid ran gallantly against the two-time Horse of the Year. Delp was beaten by the most successful horse trainer in America. But if Delp has picked his spot a bit more judiciously and prepared his horse more specifically for a match-race situation, the racing world might today be hailing Spectacular Bid as an invincible super horse.