Ronnie Franklin died in March. At 58. Obituaries listed the cause of death as lung cancer, but substance abuse played a role. Franklin lived hard, and fast.
At Delaware Park in 1978, he was just getting started, as part of a colony that included other young hot shots Tommy Kupfer (who won everything) and Chris Baker, plus veterans Bill Passmore, Vince Bracciale Jr. and Herbie Hinojosa.
Franklin rode for powerful trainer Buddy Delp and they were fairly unstoppable. Delp’s barn, perpendicular to the wide horse path that divided that part of the stable area, seemed bigger than others, taller, more important. Delp and Franklin seemed to win every day.
At the time, I spent mornings in my father’s barn – hotwalking (badly) and riding the lead pony (worse) on the other side of the stable area. I spent afternoons at the races, soaking up free air conditioning. I was a regular at the grandstand pizza shop and the clubhouse ice-cream counter with Bobby Connors, another son of a trainer. We watched races, learned how to bet from Lottie and the other gamblers and sometimes checked in with various relatives and friends (Aunt Millie, Aunt Joan, my godfather Jimmy Henry, the hay man Roy Orr, Herbie the blacksmith).
We judged jockeys harshly. You were good, or you were bad. Some days you could be both.
To us, Franklin was good because he won. He was bad because we liked to root against him, probably because he won. We were too dumb to know he wasn’t all that much older than we were. In August, Franklin rode Spectacular Bid in the Dover Stakes. The 2-year-old had already won twice at Pimlico and finished fourth in Monmouth Park’s Tyro Stakes over a sloppy track. The Dover looked like a logical next step to anyone at Delaware that day. Spectacular Bid, Franklin and Delp would surely win because – well, because that’s what they did.
They lost, and we were probably happy. Little did we know, Spectacular Bid would win his next 12 races – the World’s Playground, Champagne, Young America, Laurel Futurity, Heritage, Hutcheson, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, Flamingo, Blue Grass, Kentucky Derby, Preakness. Franklin was aboard for all but the Champagne and Young America. The kid jockey we watched at Delaware Park between bites of cheap pizza was everywhere. He won the Eclipse Award as leading apprentice in 1978. Spectacular Bid was crowned champion 2-year-old. Franklin and The Bid made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Then it all went to hell. Spectacular Bid lost a Triple Crown when he finished third in the Belmont Stakes. Though Delp put some of the blame on a safety pin the horse stepped on in his stall, the trainer also blasted Franklin’s ride. Plenty of others did too.
A lot of factors contribute to drug addiction, but surely rocketing to the top of a sport and back down again at 19 wouldn’t help. Days after the Belmont loss, Franklin was arrested for possession of cocaine, in the parking lot at Disneyland, in what would become a lifelong battle with addiction.
Delp did what plenty of trainers have done and will do. Changed jockeys. Hall of Famer Willie Shoemaker got on Spectacular Bid and lost just once in 13 starts as the horse became the 3-year-old champion of 1979 and Horse of the Year and champion older male in 1980. Delp probably made the decision in part to protect Franklin, to remove some pressure. The intention was there anyway. But who knows how Franklin took the decision? How would you have taken it? At 19?
Shoemaker rode Spectacular Bid for the first time in a Delaware Park allowance in late August 1979 – his first start after the Belmont. While cleaning some stuff in my basement recently I found a program from that day. In pencil, Shoemaker signed the page for the seventh race. So did Franklin. Can you imagine what that felt like? I was 14. Franklin was 19. He could have, and probably should have, told me to get lost.
All these years later, as a father of three boys ages 16, 22 and 24, I admire the poise Franklin showed in signing that program. At what had to be the lowest low, he signed his name for a fan. I should have been rooting for Franklin every step of the way.
He grew up in Dundalk, Md., dropped out of Patapsco High and wound up on the racetrack at 16 despite never having worked with horses. He lived with the Delps, became a hotwalker, learned to ride, galloped at Middleburg Training Center and turned natural talent into instant success. In his first season as a jockey, Franklin rode 1,274 races. He finished with 262 wins and almost $1.8 million in purse earnings. He topped 100 wins in each of his next three seasons and again in 1983 and 1988, but his career ended in 1992. He won more than 1,400 races and horses he rode earned in excess of $14 million. The 1979 Preakness was his last Grade 1 win.
His nephew Walter Cullum told the Baltimore Sun that Franklin (who moved back to Baltimore for cancer treatment) had been drug-free recently, but the issue never really leaves a person.
Franklin served jail time for a drug offense. The Maryland Racing Commission suspended him for drug infractions. He got clean for a time, and worked in construction with his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. He relapsed, got clean again, even exercised horses in Maryland, Louisiana and California, dreaming of a comeback.
It never came.