For months, almost every word trainer Bud Delp has uttered about Spectacular Bid has been calculated to influence the events of yesterday.
The Colt's major challenge of the year would come in Saturday's $300,000 Marlboro Cup, and his chances to win that handicap would be largely determined by his weight assignment. So Delp waged a war of words.
The man who long ago thought that Bid was "the greatest horse who ever looked through a bridle" now had to poor-mouth his colt's achievements. When Bid carried 132 pounds and won a handicap at Monmouth Park under wraps last month, Delp made it sound as if the bedraggled animal had narrowly survived the Bataan death march.
And when he wasn't bemoaning his horse's condition, Delp was citing some carefully selected lessons of history. "I've done some research," he said, "that revealed Swaps never carried more than 130 pounds in his life and he is regarded as a great horse. Secretariat carried 119 pounds in the Whitney and he was certainly a great horse. We'll just have to see what the weights are for the race. I'll tell you this: We will not be intidated. The weights will have to be fair for us to run."
The object of Delp's musing was Lenny Hale, racing secretary and handicapper for the New York Racing Association, and a man quite aware of the sensitivity of the eight assignment he was about to issue. Last year Hale had put such a heavy impost on Affirmed that trainer Laz Barrera refused to run him, depriving the Marlboro Cup of the racing conforntation of the year. Hale had to be feeling some pressure not to scare away the sport's biggest box-office attraction this time.
But Hale knows that the ability to withstand these pressures, to give a big-name horse the weight he deserves, is the hallmark of a good racing secretary. "I still feel that the history of racing means something." Hale said. "You didn't used to hear all this bullcrap about weights. Nobody puts weight on a horse unless he's earned it."
Yesterday morning Hale sat in his office at Belmont Park contemplating his decision. He knew, of course, that Bid's record scarcely could be more glittering. The 4-year old has won all eight of his races this season, set four track records, successfully carried 132 pounds twice. Hale played a video cassette of Bid's two-length victory over the filly Glorious Song at Monmouth. He watched it three times, trying to gauge just how tough the colt's effort was.
"Despite what appeared in the press," Hale said, "it didn't look like a tough race to me. Shoemaker let him drop way back, and he went way wide on the turn. He's in a class by himself.
Having reached this conclusion, Hale did what he had to do. He issued these weights for the Marlboro:
Spectuclar Bid, 136; Winter's Tale, 123; State Dinner, 120; Temperence Hill, 119, Jaklin Klugman, 118; First Albert, 117; Glorious Song, 117; Go West Young Man, 117; Amber Pass, 116, Genuine Risk, 115; Hold Your Tricks, 115; Tanthem, 115; Dr. Patches, 114.
This was an unassailably honest set of weights, and it puts Spectacular Bid in a class where he deserves to be: with the great horses of history. In recent years, only the mighty weight-carrier Forego has been asked to handle a tougher assignment; he won the 1976 Marlboro under 137 pounds in a performance generally considered the greatest of his career. The last great handicap horse before him, Kelso, never carried more than 136. Neither did Tom Fool.
Hale is paying Spectacular Bid a supreme compliment, but it is the sort of compliment that trainers and owners rarely appreciate. The late racing writer Joe Palmer appreciated this. He once wrote: "If you go to an owner and say, 'I've seen for 10 years, he will be very proud and pleased.But if [the handicapper] makes this official, the owner runs whimpering into the underbrush. Such a little horse! he sobs. 'It'll mash him.'"
Delp and owner Harry Meyerhoff were whimpering in the underbrush last night. They had indicated previously that they would announce Bid's plans within an hour after Hale announced his weights, but at 5 p.m. yesterday Meyerhoff told a Marlboro official, "We're in no rush."
If either of the men possesses an iota of sportsmanship, Spectacular Bid will run at Belmont on Saturday. The colt has sailed through this season without a serious challenge; there is not a thoroughbred in America remotely in his class. The only thing left to challenge him is weight, and if Bid can successfully carry 136 pounds, he will join a very select circle of horses.
Against the weak group of prospective starters for the Marlboro, Bid should be able to do it. He doesn't need his trainer to pressure racing secretaries for soft weight assignments in order to establish his greatness.