The horse that should have come in first: Spectacular Bid’s infamous finish

After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Spectacular Bid should have taken Belmont. “The Fast Ride” tells the story of why he failed.

"The Fast Ride: Spectacular Bid and the Undoing of a Sure Thing," by Jack Gilden, University of Nebraska Press, 336 pp

In 1979, Spectacular Bid, a steel-gray racehorse that was “more Ferrari than thoroughbred,” was on track to win the Triple Crown, the prestigious trio of American races for three-year-olds. The horse had already claimed victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Yet in the Belmont Stakes, the last and longest of the three races, the astonishingly fast colt everyone assumed would win only managed to come in third, failing the so-called “Test of the Champion.” Ever since, racing fans have wondered: What went wrong?

That head-scratcher lies at the center of Jack Gilden’s impressive new sports history “The Fast Ride: Spectacular Bid and the Undoing of a Sure Thing.” The popular perception, one that has endured, lays the blame squarely on Spectacular Bid’s 19-year-old jockey. Ronnie Franklin’s lack of riding experience, people believed, caused him to make critical errors during the race, which cost the best horse the win. But the true story was so much more complex.

Franklin was a high school dropout from the blue-collar town of Dundalk, Maryland. He had few prospects. A family friend, noting the teenager’s small stature and fiery resolve, saw within him “the raw, unfired ore of a winning jockey.” With some good timing and even better good fortune, the young man caught the attention of legendary horse trainer Grover “Buddy” Delp and learned how to be a jockey under the tutelage of a friend of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. During his jockey training, Franklin formed a bond with Spectacular Bid, and it was quickly apparent to Delp’s inner circle that both of these two youngsters had a tremendous amount of talent.

The riding world’s initial expectations of Franklin and Spectacular Bid were low, but the pair’s innate aptitude and special chemistry immediately yielded some exhilarating results; they exploded onto the scene, winning their first race and a number after, drawing attention to the horse’s raw strength:

“Right there in his first race, Spectacular Bid revealed something about himself, about his character, that he would demonstrate again and again throughout the rest of his career. At the quarter pole, he became a different horse. When the race was on the line, he became a killer. He hit his stride, quickened his pace, and blew away the field,” writes Gilden.

Franklin’s rapid rise to preeminent jockey while still in his teenage years was also impressive, but his peers were skeptical, even angry about his good fortune, especially the far more experienced Latino riders. To them, Franklin’s success was the result of nothing more than being a white man and essentially a member of Delp’s family – Franklin had moved in with the Delps after growing close to Delp’s youngest son and needing a place to stay that was closer to work.

Looking in from the outside, this arrangement appeared to be a picture-perfect surrogate father-son relationship, when in reality, Delp’s outsized influence over Franklin did more harm than good, according to Gilden. Delp could be ruthless about winning and was frequently highly critical of the young jockey. Dependent as Franklin was on Delp on both personal and professional levels, there was no escape. Gilden also claims that Delp, like so many others in the horse racing world, used illicit substances and introduced them to Franklin, causing a habit that would haunt the young jockey for the rest of his days.

The author argues that the pressures placed upon the teenage Franklin by Delp and the media, his worsening drug use, and an unfortunate set of circumstances on race day were actually to blame for the historic loss. Throughout the book, Gilden is far more sympathetic toward the troubled jockey than journalists at the time, whom Gilden makes a point of skewering for buying into preconceived notions about Franklin and failing to see the real story right under their noses: A very young rider was in over his head.

Spectacular Bid would have been the fourth Triple Crown winner in the 1970s, the decade of Secretariat and Seattle Slew, but after his defeat, there wouldn’t be another winner of all three races for over 30 years, until American Pharoah broke the drought in 2015, adding to the mystique of the 1979 Belmont Stakes. Although many have voiced their opinions on Spectacular Bid’s loss, few have looked as closely at the explosive story, with its underlying threads of class and race, as Gilden, who turned to sources close to the subjects in order to get a clear picture. Using cinematic language rich with imagery and wit, he sets the story straight. His description of the media frenzy at the time sums up the book: “It was all extreme and bizarre and yet, in its total, delicious theater.”

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