Franklin recalls ride of his life

Jockey: Dundalk's Ron Franklin, who steered Spectacular Bid to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1979, is now a construction worker who dreams of riding again.

May 15, 2004|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Once, a whip and the reins were the tools of his trade. Now, Ron Franklin wrestles with jackhammers and mortar mixers.

He has traded his racing helmet for a hard hat, his colorful silks for dusty work clothes.

Twenty-five years ago, Franklin, then 19, rode a high-octane horse named Spectacular Bid to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. He and Grover "Bud" Delp made history at Churchill Downs, becoming the first jockey-trainer tandem to win the Derby in their maiden effort.

Last month, Smarty Jones' rookie pair became the second such combo to grab the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Franklin attended this year's Derby, having taken time from his construction job. Guests of the track, he and Delp flew to Kentucky to autograph Spectacular Bid bobblehead dolls. Later, from the grandstand, Franklin watched the race amid a flash of deja vu.

"Was I nervous in the Derby [in 1979]? Sitting in the starting gate, I could hear my knees shaking," he said Monday. "A jockey next to me noticed and said, `When the gates open, Ron, it'll be OK. You'll know what to do.' "

Spectacular Bid took the Derby by nearly three lengths.

"He would have won that race any way that I rode him," Franklin said. "He accelerated when I asked, chewed up those horses and spit 'em out."

More poised at Pimlico, the Dundalk-raised jockey steered the steel gray colt to an easy 5 1/2 -length victory in near-record time in the Preakness.

"I knew that track like the back of my hand," said Franklin, who won 338 career races at Pimlico.

At the finish, he raised his whip in triumph, a steelworker's son stirred by hometown cheers.

"It doesn't get any better than that," he said.

Today also marks the first Preakness start for Smarty Jones' rider, 39-year-old Stewart Elliott. But Elliott boasts far more savvy at this stage than Franklin did. Elliott has been racing for 23 years. When Franklin tamed the field at Pimlico, he'd been riding for one.

A 16-year-old dropout from Patapsco High, Franklin arrived at the track in 1976, seeking work.

"He seemed a nice little feller, though he'd never touched a horse," Delp recalled. "I said, `Guess you want to be a jockey, huh?' "

Delp hired him as a stablehand, then sent him to the Middleburg (Va.) Training Center. There, Franklin learned to ride yearlings from veteran trainer Barbara Graham, who remembers him as "really green but determined, and a very quick learner."

One of those mounts was a colt of modest stock named Spectacular Bid. The two hit it off, and Delp took note.

"I had big hopes for both," said Delp, 71. "Ronnie had an affinity for horses. A lot of riders love the money, but not the horses or the business. Ronnie was different. He talked to his horses, and his hands told them something.

"Bid loved those hands."

Two years later, Franklin had become racing's teenage phenom, one step from winning the Triple Crown. Folks called them The Bid and The Kid.

Then came the Belmont. The horse sloughed home third. Some blamed a safety pin he reportedly stepped on in his stall. Others fingered the jockey. Bid's tank read empty down the stretch, fueling critics who slammed Franklin's early speed tactics in the 1 1/2 -mile race.

"Ronnie rode him like ... ," Delp said then and now, using a vulgarity.

Franklin never climbed aboard Spectacular Bid again.

Shortly thereafter, The Kid was busted for drugs. Police nabbed him with a stash of cocaine in a parking lot at Disneyland, the first visible sign of his 25-year struggle with narcotics.

Franklin dispels the notion that his meteoric rise, and the accompanying pressure, led to drugs.

"I've got a disease," he said. "I didn't choose it; I was born with it."

Losing the Belmont exacerbated his problem.

"I rushed Bid out of the gate that day," he said. "I didn't give him a chance. I didn't ride him 100 percent; I knew his hoof was hurting."

Afterward, taking the rap, Franklin said, "I was ashamed. I couldn't watch any of Bid's races on tape. I escaped from it for a long time, with drugs. Now, I let [the criticism] go. When I stopped hiding is when I started liking myself."

Franklin rode, off and on, until 1993. He won 1,403 races and $14,055,722 in a seismic 15-year career. Now 44, he says that he hankers to return to the saddle. At 122 pounds, he is close to his riding weight of 110.

"That's my dream," he said. "I really miss the horses, especially in spring. That's the worst."

But he has been disciplined for drug use three times by the Maryland Racing Commission which, in April 2000, barred Franklin from setting foot on the grounds of any racetrack in the state.

"That seems extremely severe," said Donald Daneman, a Baltimore attorney whom Franklin hired last month. "If lawyers can be disbarred and reinstated in a year, why not a jockey?"

Meanwhile, Franklin spends his days building block walls at a construction site in East Baltimore. His boss of four years, Dave Cosner, is also a recovering addict. Franklin lives in Dundalk with Cosner and his wife, Grace, his sponsors at Narcotics Anonymous.

"Ronnie's life is now by the book," said Cosner, a lifetime acquaintance. "He has the best quality of recovery that he has ever had.

"He doesn't belong here laying block, or tearing up concrete. He ought to be on a horse."

On clear, crisp days, when he's not at work, Franklin slips out to a friend's farm in Green Spring Valley and rides thoroughbreds down old fox-hunting trails.

There's a hitch, of course.

"There are no finish lines," he said. "That's the most exciting part."

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