Genesis of a Triple Crown drought: Spectacular Bid & the 1979 Belmont Stakes
The 36-year streak of Triple Crown futility dates back to unquestionably one of the greatest racers in history, the mighty Spectacular Bid.
Coming into the 1979 Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown had been captured three different times in the last six years. The novelty of achieving a sweep in the series had worn off for some fans, and the detestable nature of Spectacular Bid’s jockey and trainer hadn’t made The Bid an easy horse to root for.
Spectacular Bid’s 19-year-old jockey Ron Franklin had a turbulent five-week window after winning the Kentucky Derby with his misadventures including:
- Fined for kicking a horse at Pimlico after losing a race;
- Fined for cursing a Pimlico security guard who asked to see his ID badge;
- Fined after he got into a fistfight with Angel Cordero in the Belmont Park jockeys room the week of the Belmont Stakes;
- One day before the Belmont, he was named in a paternity lawsuit by a waitress who said he fathered her 5-month old child; and
- Nine days after losing the Belmont, Franklin was arrested in the parking lot of Disneyland and charged with cocaine possession after a guard looked into his vehicle and witnessed him cutting a white powder substance with a razor.
Meanwhile, Spectacular Bid’s trainer Bud Delp racked up two fines of his own in that five-week window between the Derby and Belmont. One was for attacking an exercise rider, the other was for threatening a security guard.
Some members of the press had portrayed Bud Delp as a beer-guzzling big mouth, when in fact, he was a top-class trainer in Maryland who certainly knew his stuff. Delp apparently enjoyed the attention he got from training Spectacular Bid and he is responsible for some great quotes:
When a photographer innocently asked what time “does Bid gets fed” Delp replied, “If you don’t know when horses get fed, go out and buy a goddamn book about horses.”
When asked about trainer John Veitch, Delp replied, “If Alydar had switched trainers with Affirmed last year, Alydar would have been the Triple Crown winner. I’m sure Veitch’s daddy is the greatest, and John has great horses, but having great horses doesn’t make a great trainer.”
Spectacular Bid was seemingly so invincible, that even terrible trips couldn’t stop him. In the Florida Derby, according to the official result chart, he broke into the side of the gate at the start and was checked on three separate occasions, before finally swinging out four-wide and drawing off to a 4.5 length win. The ride was so bad, racing columnist Andy Beyer wrote: “Spectacular Bid proved that he could overcome the worst sort of adversity. He overcame his jockey Ron Franklin.”
After the Florida Derby, Bud Delp called Franklin “an idiot” and told reporters “I could have murdered him for that ride” but by the following morning, Delp had shifted his anger to Cordero and Jorge Velasquez, the two riders who trapped Franklin and caused him most of his trouble. “Only an act of God can stop my horse! Never an act of Cordero!” Delp continued “he fooled around so much, intimidating Franklin and Bid. that he cost LeRoy fourth-place money.” LeRoy Jolley was the trainer of Cordero’s mount Sir Ivor Again. After that outburst, Delp received a letter from Cordero’s lawyer.
It would have seemed logical for Bud Delp to replace Ron Franklin, but he was too stubborn to do it. According to Andy Beyer, who covered Maryland racing at that time “Franklin had displayed little ability and aptitude when he started riding for Delp last year. But the trainer liked him, took him into his home, and referred to Franklin as his “third son.” So, even though he was barely competent to ride in run-of-the-mill races at Pimlico, Franklin found himself placed under the extreme pressure of the triple crown.”
Coming into the Kentucky Derby, Bud Delp’s antics never let up. As Spectacular Bid was walking over to the paddock before the race, Delp was reportedly seen clutching a bottle of Heineken with one hand, and with the other, he pointed to the crowd as he roared, “Go bet! Go bet! Bet all you want! He can’t lose!”
The pre-recorded television interview that Bud Delp did for the Kentucky Derby was almost as amusing. Delp told Howard Cosell “I honestly believe it’s a one-horse race. If Flying Paster is as good as Secretariat, he’ll make a race out of it, but he’s gotta be that good, and what’s the odds on that?”
You can see that great clip, all queued up, by clicking here.
Not surprisingly, Spectacular Bid was subjected to another foolish ride by Ron Franklin in the Derby. The opening quarter mile in the ’79 Derby was run in 24 and 1/5th seconds and Franklin had the speedy Bid positioned ten lengths off the early lead at the first call. How slow was that opening quarter by Kentucky Derby standards? You have to go all the way back to 1912 to finder a slower opening quarter in the Derby, when a horse named Worth got away with a 24 and 3/5th second opening quarter on a track labeled as “muddy”. Worth held on to win gate-to-wire in the comically slow final time of 2:09 and 2/5ths over an obviously deep surface.
It was a high quality horse in General Assembly who set the slow 24 and 1/5th opening quarter, but it didn’t matter. Spectacular Bid easily erased the ten length deficit and powered away to a clear victory as the 3-to-5 post time favorite. General Assembly finished second. He was a good horse, and he went on to capture the Travers Stakes by 15 lengths in the still standing Saratoga Track Record time of 2 minutes flat, but General Assembly was trounced every time he faced Bid.
Students of speed-figures know that horses rarely run very fast speed figures by closing into slow early paces. However, the Ragozin figure for Spectacular Bid’s Kentucky Derby win came back a stunning 1.75. At the time, it was the second fastest Ragozin figure ever run in the Derby, only trailing Secretariat’s 0.75.
In the Preakness, Spectacular Bid romped again. However, the focus of attention was again on jockey Ron Franklin who accused Angel Cordero of unsportsmanlike conduct in the post-race interview.
You can see that interview by clicking here.
At this point, the Triple Crown obviously seemed an inevitability. However, a fascinating series of events was about to occur. On May 27, the stretch-running 3-year-old Coastal exploded to a 13 length win in the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park, setting a stakes record in the impressive final time of 1:47 flat. His final time was over two full seconds faster than the older Peat Moss needed in a romping win at nine furlongs earlier on in that same card.
While a fresh challenger in Coastal emerged, Spectacular Bid turned in an uncharacteristically poor workout five days before the Belmont, when he worked a mile in 1:39 flat and finished up in poor fashion while under encouragement.
Here was Sports Illustrated’s description of that workout:
Usually, racetracks are souped up on big days in an effort to produce fast final times. However, Bud Delp had reportedly got on the nerves of a few racing officials in New York. As it turned out, the dirt track was quite slow on the day of the ’79 Belmont Stakes. In fact, on the undercard, that season’s champion sprinter Star De Naskra faced off with Darby Creek Road.
In his two prior starts, Star De Naskra romped by five lengths in the six-furlong Bold Ruler, and he wired a Carter field that included the red-hot post time favorite Sensitive Prince and the excellent Calumet horse Alydar. Star De Naskra’s rival Darby Creek Road still holds the seven furlong track record at Saratoga to this day. He went 1:20.40 in 1978. To give you an idea of how dull the racing surface was for the day of the ’79 Belmont, Star De Naskra and Darby Creek Road battled through fractions of 23 4/5 and 46 3/5 before Star De Naskra ultimately prevailed.
Considering the Belmont dirt track was deep and not yielding fast times, it was surprising that Ron Franklin decided to gun Spectacular Bid into a speed duel with a 90/1 longshot in the Belmont Stakes. According to HRTV’s Jeff Siegel, the explanation given for this bizarre ride was that the connections of Spectacular Bid wanted to try and win the race by more than 31 lengths in order to prove he was a better horse than Secretariat. That is probably the dumbest and most head-scratching explanation I’ve ever heard for a poor tactical ride.
Despite the bizarre riding-tactics by Franklin, Bid was rolling along around the far turn and seemingly certain to bail out his teenage rider once again. However, the mighty Spectacular Bid completely fell apart in the final furlong of the Belmont. He finished a clearly beaten third behind Coastal.
The bad blood between Angel Cordero and the connections of Spectacular Bid spilled over into the post-race press conference. As Ronnie Franklin was answering questions for the press, the taunting voice of Angel Cordero came over the PA System, first congratulating winning jockey Ruben Hernandez and proclaiming, “I told you no horse is unbeatable. Every turkey has his Thanksgiving.”
Franklin patiently endured that painful press conference, but after his cocaine bust nine days later, he would never ride Spectacular Bid again. In fact, Franklin would never be a relevant jockey again, other than for the wrong reasons. He was busted for trying to purchase cocaine through the mail. His jockey license was suspended in 1992. He has not ridden in a race since he finished 8th on Seeyouin November in a $3,000 claiming race at Fairmount Park on September 22nd of 1992.
Meanwhile, after the Belmont, a defeated Bud Delp tried to stick up for both his jockey and his horse. He wouldn’t criticize Franklin’s preposterous ride, which might lend some credence to Jeff Siegel’s comments that the goal was to try and win the race by more than 31 lengths. In fact, Delp blamed the defeat on, of all things, a safety pin. The New York Racing Association immediately sent their veterinarian to examine Spectacular Bid after the Belmont Stakes in order to disprove Bud Delp’s safety pin story. The veterinarian declared that Spectacular Bid was indeed a sound horse.
However, a few days after the Belmont Stakes, an infection was found in Spectacular Bid’s hoof by veterinarian Alex Harthill. The infection was serious enough to cause Spectacular Bid to miss the Travers. Here was how Delp described it:
Bud Delp went to his grave steadfastly insisting that the safety pin story was true. However, there were many doubters who felt it was a made-up story of a trainer lying about a defeat. Even if the safety-pin story was a lie Bud Delp invented, and one he could never let go of, the horse was still found to have been suffering from an infection that may have hindered his performance in the Belmont Stakes.
After the ’79 Belmont Stakes, Coastal proved himself a good horse. He came right back in the Dwyer at 126 pounds and toyed with the undefeated Private Account, who carried just 114 pounds. Coastal beat Private Account by four lengths in stakes record time that day. But it was Private Account who would become the best stallion career of any horse in this crop, he sired Hall of Famers Personal Ensign and Inside Information.
Meanwhile, Spectacular Bid won 12 of his next 13 starts after the Belmont Stakes. His only defeat was a second place finish to the razor sharp four-year-old Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (then at 1 ½ miles). On that day, The Bid broke poorly and Affirmed was able to get away with fractions of 25 seconds flat and 49 seconds flat. That tactical advantage was all Affirmed needed, as he gallantly fought off The Bid to win by almost a length.
Just as there was no Triple Crown glory for Spectacular Bid, there would be no glory in the breeding shed either. Spectacular Bid did not have anything even remotely resembling a stallion pedigree. His dam was a sprinter who competed on the Northern California fair circuits. His second dam, was a twin, who made just $15,425 over a 51-race career, mostly competing in low-level claiming races in the 1960’s.
If you can ignore the defeat in the Belmont Stakes and his disappointing stallion career, Spectacular Bid may very well be “the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle” as his trainer Bud Delp steadfastly insisted. From distances of 6.5 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, Spectcular Bid won all 24 of his career starts including 14 at the Grade 1 level. He competed at 15 different racetracks and he set or equaled eight different track records. The Bid also carried 130 or more pounds on five different occasions. Perhaps most impressively of all, he retired with the fastest Ragozin Sheet figures ever run. In fact, he had a few Ragozin figures at age four that were open lengths faster than the 0 Secretariat ran when he won the Belmont Stakes.
Had California Chrome got the job done in the Belmont, he would have put to bed 36 straight years of Triple Crown futility that dates all the way back to The Bid’s failed Belmont of 1979. The unfortunate reality is that we are far more likely to see a triple crown winner, before we ever see another horse come along that is in the class of Spectacular Bid. This painful Triple Crown drought started with him and let’s hope that the horse who finally breaks it, is a horse who truly deserves to be mentioned with a horse like Spectacular Bid.