08/04/2002 11:00PM

Spectacular skill and 'Bid' earn Delp spot in Hall

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WASHINGTON - When Grover G. "Bud" Delp was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame Monday, his name was put alongside those of many who don't deserve to be there. The Hall of Fame frequently honors trainers with ordinary talents who have been lucky enough to train exceptional horses. Almost anyone who operates a New York stable for a billionaire owner winds up getting a plaque in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Delp, too, was lucky to train an extraordinary horse - the best American Thoroughbred of the last 22 years. If his name were not linked to Spectacular Bid, Hall of Fame voters never would have paid attention to Delp, a trainer who spent most of his career in the boondocks of Maryland.

But Marylanders who have observed his work over four decades know that Delp paid his dues before Spectacular Bid arrived in his barn, that his enshrinement is fully deserved - and long overdue. Delp is one of the few members of his profession who could handle a champion or a $3,000 claimer with consummate skill and flair.

Delp not only launched his career and made his reputation with cheap horses, but his methods transformed the game in Maryland. He had been working as an assistant trainer to his father-in-law, Raymond Archer, before going out on his own in 1962 with seven claimers at Laurel. "I had no choice," he said. "I didn't have the luxury of having well-bred horses sent my way. But I knew I could train a horse."

He trained them - and maneuvered them - as no one in Maryland had done before. In that era, trainers didn't claim horses aggressively; the game could have been described as genteel. But as Delp assembled a large stable, he would claim horses from anyone and then would often drop them sharply in class. If he entered a $10,000 horse with good form in a $3,000 race, rival trainers were forced to guess if the animal was on his last legs. Sometimes Delp was bluffing, sometimes he wasn't, but he always managed to keep the competition off balance. He was so successful that his example spawned other big claiming operations in Maryland - those of King Leatherbury, Dick Dutrow, and John Tammaro. The big, modern-day claiming stables of Scott Lake, Dale Capuano, and others are Delp's heirs.

Delp's success with cheaper stock attracted attention from owners who gave him the chance to train better-class horses. Windfields Farm, the preeminent Maryland breeder, gave him its castoffs, and Delp did so well with them that he eventually trained Windfields's first string. In the 1960's, owner Harry Meyerhoff and his son Tom asked Delp to train for them, and together they made an annual trip to the fall sales at Keeneland to buy modestly priced yearlings.

Even though he was getting better opportunities, Delp only could dream about running a horse in the 3-year-old classics. He remembers watching one of the Affirmed-Alydar battles in the 1978 Triple Crown series with his sons, Gerald and Doug, when one of them asked, "Hey, Dad, what would you do with a horse like that?" Dad replied, "Let one come along and I'll show you!" He didn't realize that the horse was already in his barn.

Spectacular Bid was an immediate sensation when he started his career, and was the champion 2-year-old of 1978. He came to prominence in a decade that already had produced Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew, and when he launched his 3-year-old campaign, Delp was asked how his gray colt compared with these Triple Crown winners. He didn't equivocate. "This," he declared, "might be the greatest horse who ever looked through a bridle."

Most trainers wouldn't want to put such pressure on themselves, yet Bud Delp, the claiming-horse trainer from Maryland who had never played in this rarefied atmosphere, appeared serenely confident and unflappable throughout the Triple Crown campaign. He relished the experience. "I was training for a great guy, so there was no pressure for me," he said. "I was just so elated to have a great horse and to be a part of this."

In three years of managing Spectacular Bid, Delp made only one error: Out of foolish loyalty he stuck with an unqualified jockey, Ron Franklin, whose panicky ride was principally responsible for Bid's loss in the Belmont Stakes. "He cost me the Triple Crown without a doubt," Delp said. "I wanted to stick with Ronnie and why, I don't know. Yeah, I regret it."

After that loss there were no more mistakes. In 1980, both Bid and Delp were flawless, and the colt compiled a 9-for-9 record, smashed track records, and made a case that he might, indeed, be the greatest horse who ever looked through a bridle.

When Spectacular Bid was retired, Delp would have been forgiven for feeling a letdown; he knew he would never see a horse like this one again. Yet Delp's enthusiasm for the game was undiminished. The winter after Bid's retirement, Delp went to the Fair Grounds in New Orleans with a large stable of claiming horses and was the leading trainer there. He spent most of the 1990's shuttling between New Orleans and Chicago. By the time he returned to Maryland, his children were of school age and he wanted a permanent home.

Several years ago, Maryland's leading breeder, Robert Meyerhoff - brother of Harry - asked Delp to train his high-class horses, and Delp's career entered a new phase. His stable rarely has been stronger. Last year Delp developed Include into one of the country's best older horses, earning $1.4 million during the year.

In the perception of voters for the Hall of Fame, Delp speculated, "I think Include got me over a hump." Delp's recent feats reminded some of the voters that the trainer has had success aside from Spectacular Bid. Marylanders, who have witnessed Delp's skill over so many years, needed no reminding.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post