Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The sad part about Ronnie Franklin’s story isn’t that success visited him too soon. It’s that failure visited him too often.
Last week, Franklin started his new job at Laurel Park. He escorts horses into the starting gate between races for $8 a ride. Like many of the other “pony boys” there, Franklin hopes that before long, he’ll make the right contacts and some trainer will hand him the reins not just in the warmups, but in a race. But there is at least one thing that separates Franklin from the wannabe jockeys he spends his afternoons with.
He’s already won the Kentucky Derby.
You can look it up: In May 1979, a then-19-year-old Franklin rode the great Spectacular Bid into the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. Laurel Park regulars know about Franklin, the high school dropout from Baltimore who helped bring the local circuit some of its greatest glories. They also know the darker chapters of Franklin’s tale, the ones where he blows his career and all his money and the many chances he’s been given to redeem himself, all of it, on drugs. Maybe that’s why Franklin wasn’t treated like anything special while he went through his pony-boy paces throughout Saturday’s Maryland Million Day card, one of the richest on the state’s racing calendar. Nobody wants to hear him talk about the good old days over at Barn 7 at Pimlico, either, where Franklin shows up at 5 a.m. every day to exercise the horses. At 39, after two decades of low points, he’s mounting what he says is his last comeback, and he’s starting out at the bottom. The odds of finding a Derby winner warming up horses are about the same as of spotting Jack Nicklaus caddying at some public links. But, says Franklin, he won’t be down for long.
“I’ve got my life back now,” he says. “I’m ready.”
Franklin has been at the bottom of the racing game before. He grew up in Dundalk, among the coarser sections of Baltimore. He didn’t want to follow his dad into a job at the American Can Co. plant in Canton, but he hadn’t come up with an alternative career path when he quit Patapsco High School in the spring of his 10th-grade year. For a while, though, he’d been hearing an uncle tell him he had the right size and strength to be a jockey. So, a few days after dropping out, Franklin trekked across town to Pimlico in the early-morning hours and begged for work.
Grover “Bud” Delp, then one of the leading trainers in Maryland, happened to have an immediate need for a “hot-walker,” which is somebody who leads horses around the stable by hand. Franklin could handle that, even though he’d never been around a horse before.
“There weren’t any in Dundalk,” he laughs.
The trainer took a liking to the kid immediately. He invited him to move into the Delp household and enrolled him in an intensive riding school in Middleburg, Va. Franklin proved a quick learner. Less then two years after his sunrise sojourn to the track, Delp had him riding on the Maryland circuit. On Feb. 4, 1978, he won his first start, aboard a filly named Pioneer Patty. Four days later, he won again with the colt Deficit, becoming only the second jockey in racing history to win both of his first two outings. Franklin racked up more wins than any apprentice rider in the nation that year.
“He’s further along than any rider I’ve ever brought around,” Delp said of his protege at the time, “and he’s going to be heard from.”
Delp ensured that Franklin would indeed be heard from as soon as he handed him the reins to Spectacular Bid. Like Franklin, Spectacular Bid was a fast starter. He won five stakes races and set two Pimlico track records as a 2-year-old. By the start of his 3-year-old season, Spectacular Bid was clearly the class of his class; he seemed likely to follow in the hoofsteps of Seattle Slew and Affirmed and become the third Triple Crown winner in three years. Because of those expectations, Delp was under heavy pressure to put a more experienced rider in Spectacular Bid’s saddle for the prestigious races leading up to the 1979 Derby. Several of the best jockeys in the business—including the great Willie Shoemaker—applied. Delp stuck by Franklin.
Only a few critics continued harping on Franklin’s lack of resume after he’d guided Spectacular Bid to a Derby win. The underdog jockey aboard the odds-on favorite horse (no betting favorite since Spectacular Bid has won the Kentucky Derby) became the toast not only of Dundalk, but of the nation. They both made the cover of Sports Illustrated, but the rider took top billing—”Franklin’s Redeeming Derby” said the headline.
Two weeks later, Franklin and Spectacular Bid, going off at odds of 1-9, romped in the Preakness before a hometown crowd at Pimlico. But Franklin’s party was soon over. In the Belmont Stakes, Franklin used up his horse charging after a heavy long shot for the lead in the earliest stages of the mile-and-a-half race. Spectacular Bid ultimately finished third. The Triple Crown—and the slice of immortality that goes with it—was lost. Franklin’s critics finally got a chance to write those mean-spirited I-told-you-sos they’d been itching to pen for months.
Confronted with that pressure, Franklin crumbled. Almost immediately, in fact. Just 11 days after the Belmont, in the middle of an assignment to ride at Hollywood Park, Calif., he was caught with cocaine in the Disneyland parking lot by a cop with a Mickey Mouse patch on his shirt. Delp kicked him off Spectacular Bid, handing the ride to Shoemaker.
The name Ronnie Franklin, though belonging to one of the most successful jockeys in the nation a year earlier and the reigning Kentucky Derby champion, suddenly became a synonym for “loser.” In December 1979, a decade-in-review column that appeared in the Washington Post listed Franklin alongside Spiro Agnew and Skylab among the biggest losers of the ’70s.
Spectacular Bid restored his own reputation. In 1980, Shoemaker rode him to nine wins in nine starts. He retired as the horse of the year and, in terms of earnings, as the winningest horse of all time.
Franklin says he had started using drugs before he got into racing, but the money and the profile he got from Spectacular Bid gave him access to more cocaine than he’d ever dreamed of.
“If there’s a mountain of cocaine, I’ll try to do it until I die,” he says. “And with my luck, I won’t die. I’ll just be miserable.”
He continued destroying his image and his life. He moved to Kentucky, hoping a geographic cure might take. It didn’t. In 1982, he was arrested on cocaine charges and sentenced to jail time there. He got released the very same week Spectacular Bid was enshrined in the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Franklin stayed away from the ceremony.
He came back to Maryland in 1984, but track stewards were aware of his past performances. They kept a watch on Franklin, and soon enough his urine turned up dirty. Over the next nine years, he went through two marriages, several suspensions of his racing license, and all of his money. In 1993, unable to quit doing drugs, he walked away from the sport. He’s since changed careers—carpentry, selling auto parts, even touting the ponies over the Internet (www.spectacularbet.com)—with alarming frequency, but he’s stayed off horses.
He says he’s stayed off drugs, too. He got his license to work at Maryland tracks reinstated this summer, and when Laurel Park opened last week for its fall meeting, he was there to help out between races. Franklin has not yet been granted a jockey’s license by the Maryland Racing Commission but says he’s been told he can have one “by January or February” if he stays clean. Getting back in the saddle was easier than he feared.
“Doing the pony thing, it’s been good to get out there,” he says. “I know I’m on the wrong side of things for now, but at least I’m out there.”
For now, he’s working for trainer Phil Marino as an exercise rider, intent on trimming down to his riding weight of around 110 by the time the commission grants him another shot. And Marino’s not the only horseman to encourage his latest comeback. The exposure on Maryland Million Day paid off after all: Bud Delp called him a day later. They didn’t talk about the good old days.—Dave McKenna