It’s the blood that makes it intriguing. Blood means connections, connections mean families (both equine and human) and families, depending on your bent, are sources for rejoicing or lamenting. Of course, there is the fame and the money which, in contemporary thought, brings us back to blood.
Let’s start with the principles. At the beginning, the 105th Kentucky Derby was to be merely a showcase for the dark grey colt Spectacular Bid. He had the proper credentials. His father is Bold Bidder, who is a son of Bold Ruler, who produced Secretariat, which is like saying his loins sprang Zeus. Bold Ruler’s get: sons, grandsons and great grandsons have produced six of the last nine Derby winners. Bold Bidder himself sired one Derby runner—Cannonade, who won in 1974. So it was safe to say Spectacular Bid was, upstairs and downstairs, regally bred.
And on the track the grey didn’t defile his roots. Approaching the Derby he
had won 12 of 14 starts over nine different racetracks. In his two defeats (one second and one fourth) he had, as the excuse goes, bad racing luck. Also, he had raced on the East Coast. That is an important fact. In classic racing in North America, geographical snobbery counts for lengths. It’s where a youngster went to school. The East Coast his Exeter, the West Coast his Esalen. The distinction somehow affects the fourlegged as well.
So he seemed impeccable. Only his winning margins were vulgar. A bit ostentatious. He won by so much he looked as if he was in quarantine. But it’s never that easy to divine. Detractors look for flaws: gossip is the joust to unseat the mighty.
His trainer, Grover (Buddy) Delp, and his 19-year-old jockey, Ron Franklin, became suspect. Delp is a successful trainer on the Maryland circuit but his stock for the most part is cheap claiming horses. He never had a big horse before and the heady experience went to his mouth. During Derby week
in the barn area, Delp sounded like a medicine man in a carney show. He sang hosannas about his horse proclaiming that if another Secretariat was in the opposing field, the 105th Derby might—just might—be an interesting race. He added that it would take an act of God to beat Bid. When challenged about his braggadocio he claimed that if his horse could talk he would accuse his trainer of selling him short. A vocalized Bid would be even more boisterous.
This hoopla rankled traditionalists. Trainers of East Coast horses just don’t carry on this way—especially the trainer of the Eást Coast horse. The gossip became malignant: Spectacular Bid was sore; the horse was ill-trained; Delp drained him, insisting on gaudy margins of victory; the horse had tortoiselike late fractions—he would die in the Churchill Downs stretch. Delp was unrepentant. He cited two of his idols: Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali.
Then there was the use of the kid. Franklin had only a season-and-a-half of riding. The turf cognoscenti publicly
labelled him at their kindest “a green kid.” The private bile was greener still.
Twice he had given the horse horrendous rides and even his champion Delp was moved to fire him, only to recant. Worse yet, the kid looked like a kid. Not refreshingly all-Ämerican like Stevie Cauthen, but like an honest-to-God adolescent with flaming acne. You wouldn’t give the keys to the Mustang to such an embodiment of irresponsibility, the logic went.
But here Delp was at his most fetching. He simply professed love. Franklin was to him like a “son.” “The horse ran beautifully for the boy.” Franklin’s strength was that he was as evangelical about the horse as Delp. The kid proclaimed that if his steed were anointed, tongues would tell us that he would win by 13 or 14 lengths. On the backstretch Delp would put his arm around the boy to protect him from the hostile reporters. His red acne, presumably to Delp, was the rosy bloomlets of the Derby to be. Father and son. Even surrogate blood binds.
So Delp’s flamboyant conduct moved the pundits to other horses. The primary one was California’s Flying Paster. Even with his impressive credentials of 10 wins in 14 starts, with three seconds and a third, and as much money won as Spectacular Bid, Paster would not normally have been given that much credence.
The heralding of California’s super horses (remember Silky Sullivan?) are usually viewed in the East with the skepticism of press releases announcing that Tab Hunter wants to play Hamlet. But Alberta-born Gordon Campbell, Paster’s trainer, was reserved and workmanlike—very much like an easterner. Plus Paster’s Hollywood Derby was an awesome bit of racing. Not only
did he win by 10 lengths, but he broke Affirmed’s record for the same race. He also ran the fastest mile-and-an-eighth of any three-year-old in the land and he had the 42-year-old veteran Donald Pierce in the irons.
Symbolists began to cull up arcane facts. Paster’s sire Gummo (named after one of the Marx Brothers) had lost to Bid’s daddy twice, but Paster’s dam (mother), Procne, beat Bid’s dam, Spectacular, twice. So did California have a mommy dearest to smother the paternal Delp.
It didn’t stop there. On Wednesday, when Secretariat’s son, General Assembly, worked dazzlingly, the teacup readers, or in this case the feed-bag purveyors, were at it again. General Assembly had disappointed in the Wood Memorial as had his father. His father came to Kentucky and worked five furlongs in 58 2/5. General Assembly worked the same distance in 57 2/5! To boot, six years ago to May 5 was when Secretariat set the Derby record!
Then there was the lightly raced New York colt Screen King who threw another astonishing workout. He was sired by Silent Screen. Who better to upset a trainer who went media mad and a colt who had his baptismal roots tied to the Marx Brothers?
On Thursday, when the post positions were drawn, it was spilling rain and more was predicted. The prognosticators were now truly muddied. The speedy Bid drew inside, General Assembly and Screen King the middle and the late-closing Paster the outside. It was set for a perfect tactical race.
But there was one more twist. A maiden (a non-winner), who lost his six races by an aggregate of 84 xk lengths, Great Redeemer, was named in a vanity move by his owner, Dr. J.A. Mohamed, a
born-again Christian. Redeemer’s father was Holy Land, who fell in the 1970 Derby. The fourth-estate cynics queried, did he stumble once—or thrice—on his way to humiliation? Redeemer spookily drew the post next to Bid. Did Delp ever consider that God works in mysterious ways?
Thus the blood pageant was finally set to be played out at the Downs. With its decaying white clapboard facade the old track itself bespoke of more stately mansions where a history of family fortunes rose and fell.
For whatever the reason—perhaps the presence of Great Redeemer—the sun, after a sabbatical of three days, reappeared on Derby day. The horses would be granted a dry track and the infield revelers dry sod for their wet activities.
The early races run were a shade off the times of previous Derby days, so the promise of a track record was improbable. Thus the track could be described as dull-fast, which is the equivalent of calling a woman “not uninteresting.” The track would be serviceable but not passionately involved.
The 10 contestants in the post parade were steady in deportment in spite of the blare of My Old Kentucky Home and occasional fusilages of firecrackers from the infield. As the pack broke from the gate, one suffered a pang of déjà vu. For three-quarters of a mile General Assembly and Shamgo (sons of Secretariat and Sham) went head to head.
The favorite, Bid, was in fourth and the second choice, Flying Paster, was in third. On the first turn, the veteran Pierce aced Ronnie Franklin by carrying the kid and Bid wide. It would be the only time for the rest of the trip that there was homage to age.
Going down the back side, Paster seemed strangely uninterested. Perhaps it was the track, since the horse’s action was abominable. He was climbing the track, not running on it.
Approaching the mile, Bid made a move at General Assembly. Paster made his first serious threat also. Turning into the stretch, the three horses were but a length-and-a-half apart. The drama ended abruptly when Bid, clearly the best, drew off to a 2%length victory over General Assembly, with Paster finishing a struggling fifth. The time for the mile-and-a-quarter was 2:02 and two-fifths—15 lengths off the great Secretariat’s record.
The conclusions: Franklin was exonerated, if not toasted, as the new Eddie Arcaro, for his flawless ride; Delp was made to look prescient, which reinforces the theory that all prophets are loudmouths anyway. And for those who wagered $44,393 on Great Redeemer, they can take solace in that they cast their bread. ^
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