Franklin's return the toughest ride of his career

May 21, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

It didn't have to be this way. A victim of his own weakness. Regret. Remorse. Unfulfilled promise. Ron Franklin finds the applause and attention long ago faded away.

In a story whose early chapters are remindful of a fairy tale, he showed up at the stable gate at Pimlico in 1978 looking for work, didn't know a furlong from a fetlock and within a year startled American racing by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness as a first-time starter. A jockey of immense physical promise but still a mere neophyte. Green as infield grass. Also uninitiated to the troubled turns of the racetrack and, more importantly, those of life.

He virtually had the Triple Crown in his grasp, but Spectacular Bid picked up a safety pin in his foot hours before the 1979 Belmont Stakes, the puncture wound causing discomfort during the race and contributing to a third-place finish ... otherwise, the Belmont would have been his.

Franklin blames himself for not contributing a more effective ride, saying he may have moved prematurely. But that was yesteryear. Decades ago. Franklin has encountered difficulty with drugs and been disciplined severely three times, but not unfairly, for violating the rules of the Maryland Racing Commission. That's one trouble-making "horse" he hasn't been able to handle.

Franklin, now 40, had hopes of returning to riding and this past winter was permitted to exercise horses at Pimlico, Laurel and Colonial Downs. He talked of being back as an accredited jockey in February. His friends said they'd be there to share this hoped-for moment of grand return, and even celebrate with a party in his honor.

Trainers Gerald Delp and Phil Marino, among others, liked his work in the morning and, presumably, would have let him ride for them in the afternoon. But such plans never materialized.

Franklin went before the race stewards last month to explain what for him is a knot of confusion. He said he "followed their stipulations to a T," or so he believed. He thought he was pursuing the proper agenda, but it turned out to be the wrong commitment. That's his view of why he's no longer eligible to even visit the track. Ruled off pending further developments. The stewards are doing their job, checking testimony, reports and making professional judgments as to granting permission to ride. Slovenly stewardship can't be condoned. It could lead to chaos.

A Towson attorney, Ike Dixon, realizes numerous supporters are interested in wanting to see good things happen to Franklin. He's counted among them, voicing a desire to see him doing what he does best - getting the most run he can out of a horse. But first he has to be sanctioned by the stewards, and that's going to take time."The stewards are aware of what he's going through," says Dixon, who accompanied Franklin to an earlier hearing. "The stewards are sympathetic. But Ron has to complete a 12-step program at a Johns Hopkins facility before they will be satisfied."

So that's what Franklin is doing now, trying to assert control of his life and fight off temptation. Every minute, every day. "I was told I wasn't in a certified program," says Franklin. "That was the problem, but I didn't know it. Now I have eight to 10 weeks to go to complete what I'm supposed to do."

Until he complies with what the stewards prescribe, he isn't allowed on track property. Not even a spectator for the Preakness or any other day. So again it's all up to Franklin. He has been encouraged and befriended by those wanting to help. But the final verdict is in his hands. Self-control, against an evasive and tormenting evil, is what he must master. It's a race he absolutely has to win."I have to do it for myself," he says. "I must stay clean. Addiction to anything is a terrible condition. I'm trying to keep my life together and a lot of people are in my corner."

When he talks about the past, he says he got "hooked because I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. Peer pressure."

He says 1987, '88 and '89, when clear of drugs, were the best years of his life. "I was on top of my game. I couldn't do anything wrong. I was super fit and my reflexes were 10 times faster than now. I remember how focused I was and how clearly I could think. My life was stable."

Remembering Spectacular Bid makes for happy recollections. "When I was on him, I felt I was a part of the horse. He was a machine. He could turn on the power. It was almost like having two horses, not one, under you when I asked the Bid to run."

While continuing to be a part of an effort called "Courage to Change," Franklin is working for Quality Promotions, which sells marketing ideas to service stations. But his first priority is to reclaim personal credibility and, hopefully, to ride horses again.

The once cascading cheers, now only whispering echoes of the past, may again resound. He doesn't have to lead at the finish line, only to prove himself worthy of getting back in the race.

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