Out of drugs' gate, Franklin's hopes race anew

August 15, 1999|By John Steadman

Banished from the job he knew best, riding horses, Ronnie Franklin was forced to be on the outside looking in -- hoping for the moment when he would again be permitted to return to the racetrack, when the bar of being ruled off would be lifted and, yes, no longer classified as an undesirable.

"By the grace of God, I'm still alive," he said. And the Maryland Racing Commission, which gave him first, second and third chances, decided that Franklin is worth still another opportunity.

He knows from the human tote board that the odds are heavily against him and by his own observation that "only between 5 and 10 percent of recovering drug users stay clean." But with the strongest of conviction, he says his world has changed forever. The problems are in his past. Yet isn't that what they all say? To his ownself he must be true. That's the challenge.

Next Sunday, he will be free of drugs, or clean, for three years. An anniversary. A time to be exuberant and a momentous moment, as he promises, "to thank God for the talent he gave me to ride horses and to realize I found favor in God's eye again. I ask for his help every day."

Franklin was the kid who wrote one of the most incredulous stories horse racing has ever known. He turned a fairy tale into reality. One morning at 6 a.m. he's standing at an employees' gate at Pimlico asking "if any jobs are open."

And then he has the good fortune, in less than a year, to ride Spectacular Bid to victory in the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. A raw recruit with no training or background. Definitely from the other side of the racetrack.

What came much too soon was prosperity and acclaim. The initial flash of fame that set him apart brought newfound "friends" who called his name, offered a good time and then vanished. The same old scenario.

The blame, though, which he stresses, is all his own. A redeeming quality of Ronnie Franklin is he doesn't circumvent responsibility. What happened, bottom line, was of his creation. No, the devil didn't make him do it.

"I'm 39 years old," he says with a boyish kind of smile, "and I think I have 10 or 12 years to make up for lost time as a jock. It's the good Lord, not me, who made this possible."

Franklin hasn't just found religion, but in the context of self-help he credits a supreme power with showing him how to get where he is -- on the rebound, motivated to walk the straight and narrow. It's otherwise known as resisting temptation.

He spent 18 months in a Baltimore recovery program, conceived by Larry D'Angelis, called "Courage To Change." He now works for Max Bauer, who operates a cabinet shop in Brooklyn and has a farm and racehorses in Howard County.

So every morning, since he gained authorization to be readmitted to the track, Franklin shows up at Laurel Park to exercise horses. He has from 12 to 15 mounts, at $8 per ride, doing whatever trainers tell him to do, galloping or adhering to a detailed workout.

"Gerald Delp uses me and so does Tony Dutrow. I feel better than ever, like I'm 21 again. Those other jockeys better be ready. I'm coming back."

That's known as serving notice and Franklin has aspirations of being able to prove between now and February -- which is his targeted return -- that he deserves to be licensed to ride in races and not just for training purposes. His current weight is 121 and he expects to be at 110 when he answers his first call to the post.

Bauer, who came through as his true friend in need, has bred and raced horses since 1984, including Providential River, Listen To This, Provide Glory, Sally's River and Eve's Glory. He also employs Franklin in his wood cabinet business after the rider comes from earlier duties at the track. This means he's occupied 5: 30 to 10 a.m. at Laurel and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the shop.

"He's doing good," Bauer says. "He's clean and knows I won't tolerate drugs. This time he has the will. Somebody has to help him get on top again. He's one of the strongest men, even jockey-sized, I have ever seen. You ought to see him carry furniture."

How did drugs start with Ronnie? He says it happened when he was 11 years old and frequented a quarry near his Dundalk neighborhood where a gang of hippies introduced him to marijuana. What happened then?

"I smoked it about 10 times before I got high. As I got older, I wanted more. That led to cocaine. The only thing that matters in life is you want more. I could have died under a bridge or in an alley. God saved me, I believe, to be an inspiration to others."

Franklin says a glass of wine or a bottle of beer would lead him back to the drug habit. "When you use cocaine, you aren't living. The only thing that matters is to get more. A lot of the wrong kind of people know not to come around me."

But what if they do? "I'm calling racetrack security. They'll take charge." There's no doubt Franklin is on his guard and also that he's being watched and checked by representatives of the race commission.

He went before the race officials without a lawyer, stated his own case and they believed in his sincerity again. His mother, four sisters and a brother feel the same way.

A fallen star, Ronnie Franklin. The door is open for his return. May the good intentions be lasting; his prayers continuing to deliver him from the category of human tragedy.

Pub Date: 8/15/99

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