Even though his name is in the title, and his picture is on the cover, the great Spectacular Bid is a background character in Jack Gilden’s spellbinding book. After all, racing fans know all about “the Bid”: he was the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion, Horse of the Year in 1980, and an Eclipse champion at ages 2, 3, and 4.
The story racing fans knew for decades went like this: the Bid, owned and trained by Marylanders Harry and Tom Meyerhoff and Buddy Delp, respectively, was undone in his bid for the Triple Crown by Ronnie Franklin, a local Maryland jockey who gave his mount a terrible ride in the Belmont Stakes. After that ride, Franklin was replaced by the great Bill Shoemaker, and Bid went on to further glory he could never have achieved under Franklin. That’s that, right?
Not quite. Gilden’s 300-page tome takes a deep dive into the players. He provides plenty of background information on every character, taking time to explain their significance in the story. He goes into detail on Franklin’s upbringing in the gritty Dundalk suburb of Baltimore, and how he found his way to the Pimlico backstretch. He tells of Delp’s meteoric rise in the Maryland training ranks and the cold way he treated many of the people and horsemen in his life, referring to him as “a bully, a brawler, and an admitted (drug user).”
Other figures not always associated with Spectacular Bid become main characters, including Angel Cordero Jr., the rough-riding leading jockey of his day who caused Franklin problems both on and off the track, and racing writer Andy Beyer, whose scathing columns during Triple Crown season did Franklin no favors in the court of public opinion.
The safety pin story also receives a treatment. The story went that Spectacular Bid stepped on a pin in his stall the night before the Belmont, and the subsequent pain cost him a Triple Crown. It had been brushed aside in recent years as an excuse for Franklin’s poor riding, but Gilden reviews the incident in detail. His telling casts Delp as someone caught up in a pursuit of glory, and a subsequent financial windfall, rather than the welfare of the horse.
Gilden also weaves the cultural climate of the late 1970s into his story. With such a large Latino presence in the sport nowadays, it can be easy to forget, but the ascension of riders such as Cordero, Ruben Hernandez (who rode Coastal, the upset winner of the Belmont), and Jorge Velazquez was met with, at best, unease, and at worst, outright hostility from the racing community, including Spectacular Bid’s people. The emergence of recreational drugs such as cocaine also infiltrated their way into Franklin and Delp’s lives, with both of them avid users. The drug ultimately led to Franklin’s downfall, while Delp did little to discourage him.
It’s a darker and more complex story than anyone might’ve given it credit, but Gilden tells it in spellbinding fashion. It’s unlikely one will end the book with the same opinions on Franklin and Delp as when they started. For anyone who wants to know the real story behind the people with one of racing’s brightest stars, it’s a must-read.