I read the other day that Hall of Fame trainer Buddy Delp’s daughter Pajeen, who has been involved with the sport since she began hotwalking for her father at age 12, is leaving the racing industry. What struck a nerve is the reason she is leaving something that was born in her and what she loved.
After all, this is someone who learned under the tutelage of her father, and then trainers Al Stall, Wayne Catalano, and Tim Hamm. She even had her own stable for two years at Delaware and Philadelphia Park, winning at a 24 percent clip with lower level claimers.
As she explained in a blog on Theracingbiz.com, “For the past few years I have worked for people whose standard of horsemanship wasn’t what I was accustomed to, and I became frustrated and disheartened. In the 21 years I have been working in the racing industry I have noticed a steady decline.
“I had the privilege to come up under a Hall of Fame trainer that ALWAYS put the horse first. I was taught to listen to the horses rather than relying on a vet to diagnose. It was ingrained in me as a youth that you treat a nickel claimer with the same care as a graded winner; just like you treat a hotwalker or groom with the same respect you would an owner. But in recent years, I’ve seen horses run that weren’t sound; that had lung infections – that should not have been in a race but were. People don’t listen to the horses anymore.”
As someone who has been involved in racing for 50 years, that final sentence hit home, but what made the biggest impact was Pajeen’s comment, “A while before my Daddy passed away he said, with tears in his eyes, ‘I would hate to be coming into this industry today.’ He was born in 1932, served in the Korean War, and was around for the heyday of racing.”
I remember that heyday of racing, especially the little known chapter about the so-called Maryland hardboots; trainers who were not known on a national scale like the big-name New York and California trainers. These were tough, resilient horsemen who braved the harsh winters at Bowie Race Course every year before moving on to Pimlico and Laurel. There wasn’t a great of deal glory for these trainers. They trained mostly claimers and allowance horses and their livelihood depended on keeping these horses sound.
Their goals were not the Kentucky Derby or the Coaching Club American Oaks. If they were fortunate enough the have a talented stakes horse, it meant the world to them to win the John B. Campbell Handicap, a prestigious stakes in those days, or the Barbara Fritchie Handicap. The big-time was having a horse in the Pimlico Special or the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes. On a truly rare occasion one of them would get lucky and strike the mother lode, like Del Carroll and Bill Boniface, who won Maryland’s greatest prize, the Preakness Stakes, with Maryland-breds Bee Bee Bee and Deputed Testamony, respectively; both ironically in the slop. It was only fitting that a Maryland horsemen win the second leg of the Triple Crown by slogging through a quagmire at odds of 18-1 and 14-1 to upset the Kentucky Derby winner.
It was rewarding to see these hardened veteran trainers win major stakes with nationally known horses, such as Dickie Small with the tenacious warrior Broad Brush and Concern. And who didn’t admire the trainers who kept racking up the statistics year after year like King Leatherbury, Dick Dutrow, and John Tammaro. And there were others too numerous to mention.
And then there was Grover “Buddy” Delp, who trained what he called “the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle.” Delp, although a successful trainer and one of Maryland’s best, was a relative unknown on a national scale when he unleashed Spectacular Bid on the racing world.
I can just picture him saying to Pajeen, “I would hate to be coming into this industry today.”
Being as brash and outspoken as he was, Delp probably would have been vilified by today’s society for the way he handled Spectacular Bid, mainly as a 2-year-old, and for sticking with the colt’s troubled young jockey Ron Franklin, especially after he gave Bid an absolutely horrendous ride in the Florida Derby, and it was the greatness of the horse that still enabled him to win by 4 1/2 lengths. Delp was furious and loudly berated the rider in the winner’s circle. But Delp had become a father figure to Franklin after taking him in his care and giving him a job as a stablehand, mucking stalls, hotwalking, and doing other odd jobs. Because of that, to everyone’s surprise he kept him on Bid for the Flamingo and Blue Grass Stakes, and all through the Triple Crown, even though it was widely believed that Bid had become way too much horse to be entrusted to the 19-year-old, who had only been riding for a year.
Delp would most assuredly have come under criticism for his handling of Bid as a 2-year-old. But back then, veteran horsemen like Delp knew their horses; knew what they could and couldn’t handle, and because of that, gave them the opportunity to be great. Not great in the sense of many of today’s champions, who race 10 to 15 times in their career. I’m talking truly great, proving themselves in all aspects of the game and dancing every dance over a period of time.
Delp had confidence in his ability as a horsemen, perhaps as much as any trainer I’ve ever met, and because of that confidence in his skills and knowing what a rare treasure Spectacular Bid was and the Herculean feats he could accomplish, it enabled the horse to become one of the Titans of the Turf and be considered by many as the greatest horse they ever laid eyes on.
Those feats have been chronicled in this column on several occasions, but getting back to Delp’s handling of Spectacular Bid at 2, it is a typical example of how training has changed, as well as the public’s perception of how a horse should be trained, or I should say shouldn’t be trained. But that brings us back to Pajeen’s quote, “People don’t listen to horses anymore.”
When Spectacular Bid won his first two career starts at Pimlico, scoring by eighth lengths second time out and equaling the track record for 5 1/2 furlongs with Franklin getting a five-pound apprentice allowance, Delp knew he had something out of the ordinary. But two defeats followed, with Bid dropping back to last, 18 lengths off the pace, in the Tyro Stakes at Monmouth and rallying for fourth. That was followed by a second-place finish in the Dover Stakes at Delaware as the even-money favorite.
Who could have known then that Spectacular Bid would go on to win 24 of his next 26 starts, with his only two defeats coming at 1 1/2 miles, one to an older Triple Crown winner, and with excuses in both of them?
Bid’s true greatness was discovered in his fifth start, the seven-furlong World’s Playground Stakes at Atlantic City. The track was very slow that day, as evidenced by the lofty ‘25’ track variant on the DRF past performances. Normally, extremely fast times were recorded on surfaces with a track variant of ‘10’ or under.
Delp couldn’t believe the 5-1 odds on Bid and had Franklin let the colt put on a show, and he exploded out of the gate, set blistering fractions of :22 flat and :44 3/5, and left his field far behind, winning by 15 lengths in an astounding 1:20 4/5, just two-fifths off the track record. Those 5-1 odds would prove to be one of the great gifts of all time. Bid was so dominant he would go off at odds of 1-20 an unheard of eight times. No horse, not even Man o’War, went off at such low odds that many times. No one else would even come close. Bid would go off at 1-10 another five times.
It was now time to prove to the world that Bid was the best 2-year-old in the country, and Delp sent him to Belmont for the Champagne Stakes, which was the title maker in those days. Facing Hopeful and Saratoga Special winner General Assembly and with the championship on the line, Delp put one of the leading riders in the country, Jorge Velasquez, up on Bid and they teamed up to drill General Assembly by 2 3/4 lengths in 1:34 4/5, two-fifths off the stakes record set by Seattle Slew. The championship was his.
Most trainers would have called it a year with the title locked up, but Delp was not most trainers. He knew Bid had a lot more left in the tank, and in a move that would have sent today’s social media into a tizzy, he ran Bid back 11 days later in the Young America Stakes at Meadowlands. Today one might call it a “bounce,” but in any case, Bid, racing at night for the first time, appeared beaten between horses turning for home, but battled back like a true champion to score a neck victory.
OK, Delp had proven his point, but after that tough a race, and having two races in 11 days, it was time to put Bid away for the year. Uh, not quite. Bid was still talking to Delp and telling him he wasn’t through. Forget what people might think, Delp went ahead and did the unthinkable. Not only did he run Bid back only nine days later in the Laurel Futurity, he took future Hall of Famer Velasquez off the horse and put Ronnie Franklin back on in an effort to make the 18-year-old the nation’s leading apprentice rider.
In Delp’s mind, Spectacular Bid would win with anyone on his back, and that thinking held true throughout the colt’s career.
Writing in the Washington Post, Andy Beyer said Delp “is a man with nerves of steel.” Not only was he running a 2-year-old in his third stakes in 20 days, he, according to Beyer, “Left himself wide open for criticism when he replaced the illustrious Jorge Velasquez as his colt’s rider and gave the assignment to his regular stable jockey, Ronald Franklin.”
Delp’s astute judgment paid off when Bid trounced General Assembly by 8 1/2 lengths, with his time of 1:41 3/5 for the 1 1/16 miles shattering the track record by a full second.
It was now October 28, well past the time most 2-year-olds raced back then. Bid surely would now be given a break before getting ready to begin his Derby campaign. But it became evident that the racing world might not be quite ready for a trainer like Buddy Delp when he stunned everyone by running Bid back in 14 days in the Heritage Stakes at Keystone Racetrack. Once again, Bid dominated his opposition, making a big move on the turn and drawing off with the utmost ease to win by six lengths.
So Bid had finally closed out his 2-year-old campaign with four major stakes victories in the span of 34 days, which today is considered the normal time between races for horses of any age.
Many 3-year-olds today are given two or three preps before the Kentucky Derby. Delp put Spectacular Bid away for nearly three months following his eventful fall campaign, yet still was able to give him five preps for the Derby. Bid coasted home in all of them, winning by an average margin of 8 1/2 lengths, despite the Florida Derby fiasco, in which he should have won by a city block had it not been for Franklin getting him stopped cold on several occasions.
The rest of Bid’s career, as they say, is history, as he rolled to convincing victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Of course, the main talk would be about the infamous safety pin that was found embedded in the bottom of the colt’s hoof the morning of the Belmont Stakes. The reason given by most people for his defeat was the ride by Franklin, who was unaware of Bid’s injury and instead of letting him sit back off the pace behind an 80-1 shot who was winging it out there on the lead, went after him on the clubhouse turn and then ran with him through fast fractions of :47 2/5 and 1:11 1/5. By comparison, the two Triple Crown winners in the previous two years, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, went their three-quarters in 1:14.
The morning before the Belmont, Delp blew Bid out three furlongs in :35 and change. Following the work, he was sitting in the barn with several workers, including Bid’s groom, Herman (Mo) Hall. Delp looked at Bid in his stall and said, “Well boys, there he is. The Triple Crown is ours, without a doubt. All we have to do is lead him over there.”
Delp was having a ball in the Big Apple, as the New York Racing Association treated him to a suite at the Plaza Hotel, a chauffeured limousine, dinners, and Broadway shows.
On Saturday morning, he was driven to the barn, arriving just before daylight. As soon as he got out of his car, Mo Hall came running over to him and said, “Boss, the horse is lame.” Delp ran to the colt’s stall, put the light on, and saw Bid standing there with his leg in the air. Hall held the foot while Delp looked at it, and there stuck in the bottom of his hoof was a safety pin. It wasn’t in the frog, but the hard laminae. It was in there a good half inch and Delp had a hard time pulling it out.
It was determined that when Hall went in to feed him at 4 a.m. he dropped one of the pins, and Bid, wanting his breakfast, began stomping his foot. In a one-in-a-million shot, he happened to come down on the pin with the force of sledgehammer. Delp was able to ease the pin out, and with it came a thin brown liquid. Bid seemed fine after that, as the bacteria he picked up from the straw had sealed the wound. Delp packed the foot with a mixture of mud, Epsom salts, and vinegar and then broke the news to owner Harry Meyerhoff. All they could do was watch the foot and see if he walked sound on it. All seemed fine.
Not wanting to alarm Franklin and wanting him to ride the colt just as he normally would, he decided not to tell him about the pin. But he knew he had made a mistake when he saw Franklin go after the 80-1 shot, riding Bid overconfidently. It was as if he just wanted to get the lead, take control of the race, and get to the wire. Years later, just the thought of what might have been had he told Franklin what happened would literally bring him to tears, for he knew Franklin would have protected the horse and not have been so impatient.
Delp could see during the race that Bid was running in pain, as he wouldn’t change leads. He felt “devastated” when he saw him come down the stretch, knowing he could have scratched him, but felt he could win even with the injury.
Immediately following the Belmont, a relaxed Delp, with a bottle of beer in hand, talked to a few members of the press on the backstretch and accepted the defeat. He never mentioned the pin to the media, saying only there were no excuses. All he wanted to do was get back to the barn and see the horse. When he eventually told the press back in Maryland about the pin, he was pretty much branded a liar, and, while he understood their skepticism, he said his mother “cried like a baby” at the accusations. Many still scoff at the safety pin excuse.
But Bid’s problems were far from over. Delp called noted Kentucky veterinarian, Alex Harthill, who told him what to do, and said if there was no improvement in seven days he’d have to come to Maryland. By the seventh day, Bid seemed fine, but the next day he was dead lame.
When Harthill arrived, he used a miniature plane to remove little bits of the hoof at a time. When he noticed a black spot embedded deep in the hoof he bore into it with an electrical drill.
Delp said, “Suddenly this thick black stuff starts shooting out of there like a fountain. It was completely infected. Doc looked up at me said, ‘Hey Bud, where are all those s.o.b.s who called you a liar?’ He told me if we had left it alone much longer he likely would have lost the foot, and there’s a good chance he eventually would have had to be put down.”
Harthill then had blacksmith Jack Reynolds fly in and fit Bid with a special piece of aluminum on his shoe. Delp fed him gelatin to build up the bone and medicated the coronet band to stimulate blood circulation and help the hoof grow back. A little over two months later, Bid returned to the races, winning an allowance race at Delaware Park by 17 lengths in track record time with new jockey Bill Shoemaker aboard. A great horse was about to grow into a legend.
There have been better looking horses than The Bid. There have been better moving horses, and better bred horses. But he had one quality that separated him from the others – he could do everything. He was as close to the perfect racing machine as any horse in my time. And it was a superior, old-style horseman like Buddy Delp that brought that greatness out in him.
Bid won grade I stakes on the lead and he won coming from 10 lengths back. He ran seven furlongs in a near-world-record 1:20 flat and 1 1/4 miles in a world-record (on dirt) 1:57 4/5, a time which has not been equaled in 37 years. He broke seven track records and equaled another, and he did it at 2, 3, and 4, at seven different tracks and at distances from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. In addition to the World’s Playground, he ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:45 4/5 at Hollywood Park and a record 1:46 1/5 at Arlington Park, both carrying 130 pounds, and 1:46 3/5 at Belmont Park, defeating older horses. He also ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:40 2/5 at Hollywood Park carrying 132 pounds.
In all, Spectacular Bid won at 15 different racetracks in nine different states, and carried 130 pounds or more to victory five times, while rattling off 12-race and 10-race winning streaks. In his only other defeat at 1 1/2 miles, he was beaten by the previous year’s Triple Crown winner Affirmed in the Jockey Club Gold Cup after being forced to miss his prep in the Woodward Stakes due to a virus and getting a questionable ride from Bill Shoemaker, who allowed Affirmed to crawl on the lead in a four-horse field. After being passed by Coastal on the inside, Bid batted back and tried hard to catch Affirmed, but was beaten three-quarters of a length.
As his coat lightened as a 4-year-old, he was like a ghostly figure hurtling down one stretch after another in isolated splendor. With his head held high and his powerful legs stretching across the racing universe, he not only went undefeated in nine starts in 1980, there was never a horse in front of him at the eighth pole.
Bid, however, had been suffering from a nagging sesamoid problem that was discovered after the Jan. 5 Malibu Stakes and was present throughout his entire undefeated 4-year-old campaign. Daily tubbings and Butazolidan helped, but following his victory in the Amory Haskell Handicap under 132 pounds, Shoemaker noticed he didn’t feel 100% right. Delp just wanted to get him to the Jockey Club Gold Cup to close out his career, and continued treating him and making sure he was walking sound. But first came the Woodward Stakes, which wound up being run in a walkover, and Delp told Bill Shoemaker to just have him cruise around the track and let him get a good work no matter how long it took him. His priority was protecting the horse in order to make the Gold Cup.
But Shoemaker, despite never fully asking him to run at any point, still allowed Bid to close each of his final two quarters in a mind-boggling :24 1/5. Horses rarely come home that fast in a normal race going 1 1/4 miles, never mind running against no one. By running his mile and a quarter in 2:02 2/5, faster than previous Hall of Fame Woodward winners Buckpasser, Kelso, and Sword Dancer, Bid re-aggravated his sesamoid injury, which forced his retirement.
Bid remained a major part of Delp’s life until the day he died, as he would retreat to his den, sit in his easy chair, and look up at a vision that would brighten his day. There above him was the face that became the focus of his life for three years. Wherever Delp went, from Florida to California to Illinois, he would take the painting of Bid.
“It’s a head shot of him looking out of his stall, and he’s pricking his ears,” Delp said 20 years later back in 1999. “I look at that painting every day and see that familiar left eye looking back at me. That’s just the way I remember him every morning when I got to the barn. It’s as if it was 20 years ago and he’s looking at me, waiting for his morning donut. He wanted that donut and in fact demanded it. He loved the powdered sugar.”
In 1998, my wife and I went to visit The Bid at Milfer Farm in Unadilla, N.Y., along with our then 14-year-old daughter, Mandy. He no longer bore even the slightest resemblance to that charcoal gray 3-year-old with the star on his forehead. But he still held his head high with pride, and when he looked at you, that fire and spirit of his youth still shone through. He was Spectacular Bid, and he still knew it. And you knew it.
Milfer Farm owner, Dr. Jon Davis, told us at the time, “I still get goose bumps standing next to him.”
As did I that day at Milfer Farm, seeing him interact so playfully with my daughter. I could only think back to my wife and I photographing him at the Preakness on assignment for the Thoroughbred Record. With Joan positioned on the outside rail and me on the photographer's stand in the infield, we watched him striding out so powerfully as he whizzed by us. I could only think back to being in Joan's office (when she was public relations coordinator for NYRA) overlooking the finish line at Belmont Park watching Bid complete his historic walkover. Eight days later we were married.
Affirmed died in 2001, then Seattle Slew in 2002, and The Bid in 2003. Just like that, they were all gone, and with them the end of the golden era. We will never see the likes of Spectacular Bid again. But at least I have a photo album I can open, with photos of my daughter and Bid, and show it to her. And I can tell her, “You remember these pictures of you with this magnificent white horse named Spectacular Bid? Well, his trainer once called him the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle. It was quite an outrageous comment at the time. But, you know what? He just may have been right.”
As Delp said, “I never once blew my own horn. I only blew the horse’s horn. But, hell, he ran a lot faster than I talked.”
Yes, Delp could be outrageous in some of his comments and some of his actions. I remember the morning of the Preakness as Bid was coming off the track, out of nowhere he lashed back with both his hind legs. Mo Hall, who was leading him back, looked at him and said, “You’re as crazy as the boss.”
It is sad to see Buddy Delp’s daughter leave the sport she once loved; the sport to which her father had devoted his life. But she apparently feels she has been let down too many times and can no longer bear to witness the decline, and that everything she learned from her father has faded into a lost generation. Delp taught his daughter to listen to horses. And, boy, did he listen to Spectacular Bid. What the horse told him can be found in the pages of the history books.