At the edge of the Belmont Park stable area, near the gap in the fence leading to the racetrack, Bud Delp emerged in the hazy morning light, trailing a one-horse parade. Striding out in front of him, head bobbing, Spectacular Bid walked casually onto the track. It was seven o'clock, and Delp was looking triumphant. Exercise riders called his name, while trainers approached him on foot from the clocker's shed, hands thrust out in greeting. Turning left at the track, Delp, staying close to the fence, wandered on about 50 yards, looking back when he heard the voice of Sid Watters.
"Congratulations, Bud," said Watters, an old friend. Eight years ago, Watters was training the Triple Crown favorite, Hoist The Flag, when the colt fractured a leg before the Kentucky Derby. Hoist The Rag was saved for stud, but he never raced again.
"Well, you know what this is like," said Delp.
"Well, I didn't get too far," Watters said quietly. "We came up short. But it's a nice feeling when you have one like that."
"Nice feeling," said Delp, "but a lot of work."
The plotting, the planning, the observance of a thousand details were now almost over for Delp. Spectacular Bid, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, was down to the last days of training for Saturday's Belmont Stakes. That Delp should be at Belmont as a visiting celebrity, in a setting almost alien to him, is a tribute—if a somewhat ironic one—to what he has accomplished as a horseman in the last six months. For he views New York, the seat of Establishment racing in America, with a kind of flippant irreverence—"Racing up here doesn't impress me that much," he says—even with a touch of bitterness at what he perceives to be an aloof and superior air affected by some of its horsemen toward Maryland trainers. "We train horses down there just like they do it here—and better, a lot of us do," Delp says.
Down there is Maryland, Delp's home. He grew up and raised a family there, made his name and fortune there. In his 18 years as a trainer he has only rarely left Maryland for New York. Until he rose to prominence this spring with Spectacular Bid, Delp was unrecognized nationally. Bid gave him countrywide exposure, in fact exposed him as being alternately arrogant, volatile, glib and charming. He was also revealed as a first-rate trainer of a classic horse. In the heat of the Triple Crown series, under constant pressure and scrutiny, Delp has trained the colt flawlessly.
Before this spring Delp had already established himself as one of the leading horsemen in America. He is no phenom. If new to the public and the visiting press, he had a name among horsemen long before the year began. Working often with huge stables, with sometimes as many as 70 horses in training, Delp for years operated the most successful public racing operation in Maryland. He was also among the leading trainers at race meetings in New Jersey and Delaware. He saddled 1,075 winners from 1974 through 1978, and his horses earned purses totaling $6,834,455. Nationally, he never ranked worse than eighth in number of winners, and last year—with Bid running as a 2-year-old—he was third in winners, 239, and in money won, $1,711,330. Yet with all the shipping he has done, he estimates he has run no more than five horses in New York.
Maryland is where he plays his game—at Pimlico, Laurel and Bowie—out of sheds filled with every class and category of racehorse: cheap and expensive claimers, middling stakes and allowance horses, 2-year-olds and up, sprinters and routers, males and females. He has run with such stock since starting out at Delaware Park in 1963, and that year he led all the track's trainers.
Whatever the quality of a racehorse may be, Delp says, his training theory is the same for all. The object is to build a horse to his peak and keep him fresh and formful for as long as possible.
"You put a foundation under a horse, just as if you're building a house," he says. "You take him a step at a time—daily gallops, get him muscled up, get him ready to do what you're looking for him to do. All of them you treat basically the same. You can take a horse and gallop him two miles today and tomorrow, and the next day he's off his feed. I say, 'Well, he don't want two miles.' So I back off him and put him in with the mile-and-a-half horses. But he might take two miles and say, 'I like it.' So then you go on and on with him. You get him ready to breeze, and you go slow. Then you pick it up a little bit, go a step at a time. Always you want him to come back fresh. And then, if he's a $5,000 claimer, that's where he's going to run. I don't believe in running horses over their heads. It hurts the horse. Training horses is easy if you know what you're doing."
Having mastered his craft in Maryland, Delp has brought that sure touch to the conditioning of Spectacular Bid. It can unequivocally be said: the man knows his horse. "I think he's better now than he ever was," Delp says. "He's continued to improve. That's the key to me. I've trained all kinds of horses; he's a push button to train."
Delp relishes being in New York. He senses the Establishment watching him. He confesses to a certain satisfaction; he is showing them. "Damn right," he says. "I'm representing 90% of all horsemen. The other 10% can go pound sand. There are a lot of great trainers who get the most out of their horses. And that's what I call doing it right. If you get the most out of a horse, you can't do any better. But there are so many trainers in the big time that couldn't train for me. I knew that I could do the job. But now almost everybody knows it. I guess it's a good feeling. I guess it is."