Ron Franklin died this week, and the world didn’t notice.
The former jockey of Spectacular Bid, one of the greatest horses who ever lived, was 58 years old, the victim of lung cancer. At the time of his death, he was still serving a suspension by the Maryland Racing Commission for various incidents involving cocaine. But 39 years ago, at the tender age of 19, he was on top of the horse racing world, having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes on board Bid.
I met Franklin several times and considered him a friend. And looking at his life, I know that Franklin didn’t get a fair shake. Given the chance of a lifetime, the wide-eyed, inexperienced jockey wilted in the national spotlight. Trainer Bud Delp took some of the blame. “Maybe too much came to this kid early,” he said. “There was too much weight on the kid. Could have been my fault.”
Franklin was born and raised in Dundalk, Maryland. Standing five feet one inch tall and weighing 106 pounds soaking wet, he learned how to take care of himself, having to withstand the pushing and shoving that the bigger kids served up. He fought back.
But he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life — that is, until a neighbor, “Uncle” Hank Tiburzi, saw him wrestling with a few boys and got an idea: with strength like that, he could be a jockey. Tiburzi took Franklin to Pimlico, and from the moment Franklin walked on the track, he was hooked.
He did not wait for a second; as if he knew this would be his life’s work, he began asking stable hands around the barn about employment. After a few minutes, the public-address system announced, “There’s a young man at the stable gate looking for a hot walker’s job.” Franklin didn’t even know what a hot walker did, but he didn’t care.
Delp heard the announcement and hired Franklin to hot walk horses for $75 a week. Brian Delp, Bud Delp’s nephew, led him back to the barn where Delp ran his operations. Franklin was honest with him. “Look, I’ve never been around horses, I don’t know them, I don’t know nothing,” he told Brian Delp. The younger Delp replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll teach you.”
Getting aboard Spectacular Bid
Franklin worked his way up to becoming an exercise rider, and then an apprentice jockey. And he just happened to be at the right place at the right time. In 1978, Spectacular Bid was a 2-year-old that showed some promise, and Franklin had been exercising him for a while. Delp let him ride the horse in a few allowance races, and soon, with the exception of a few races, he became Bid’s regular rider.
The decision was not without controversy. Franklin nearly caused several accidents in the Florida Derby on Bid – and still won by four-and-a-half lengths. Delp yelled at him in front of the press like a father whose son had wrecked his prized car.
Delp and the Meyerhoff family, who owned Spectacular Bid, discussed replacing Franklin with a more seasoned veteran. But in the end, the Meyerhoffs’ heart won, and Franklin stayed on the horse.
Franklin temporarily silenced most of his critics in the Derby, directing Bid to an easy victory. From there, it was on to the Preakness; despite moving Bid to the extreme outside, he and Bid romped to a five-and-half-length win. He was on top of the world, with the hometown crowd yelling “Ron-nie! Ron-nie!.
He celebrated that night with some cocaine.It was the beginning of the end.
Two weeks later, Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin (yes, he did) on the morning of the Belmont Stakes. Franklin took him out too quickly, chasing an 80-1 pacesetter, and grabbed the lead early in the race. But Bid wasn’t changing leads; he was favoring his hurt hoof, and he tired in the homestretch, the laminae of his hoof beginning to bruise and turn into a hematoma. He finished third to Coastal and Golden Act.
A long way down
The Belmont, coupled with Franklin’s arrest in a Disneyland parking lot for possession of cocaine, spelled the end of his riding Spectacular Bid. The Meyerhoffs switched to Bill Shoemaker for the rest of Bid’s career, and the horse won 12 of the next 13 races under the veteran jockey.
Ron Franklin never recovered. He was arrested again in 1982 on cocaine charges and spent 60 days in jail. For a boy who loved the outdoors, it was the worst two months of his life. Billy Reed of the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote, “You wanted this kid to make it, somehow. You hoped that he would overcome it all—the scuffling boyhood, the lack of education, the fame that came too big and too soon, the drug thing. You wanted this simple child bent and shaped by pressures that he never comprehended to find happiness in the end.”
He tried to find happiness, and for a while, he found success; in 1983, he finished third among jockeys at the Louisiana Fair Grounds and battled for first place at Louisiana Downs. He got married. But drugs kept getting in the way. He failed drug tests in 1991 and 1992 and was suspended by the Maryland Racing Commission. He applied several times to get reinstated, but was denied every time. His career as a jockey was over.
“I want to ride again,” Franklin told the commission. “My most enjoyment out of life is to ride.” And it was. Between odd jobs, he exercised horses, even helping with training just so he could be around the animals.
One day in 1979, as Bud Delp was pontificating in front of a crowd of reporters, one journalist spotted Franklin in the stall of one of Delp’s claimers, speaking softly to him and handing him a doughnut. He was where he wanted to be; out of the spotlight, spending time with a horse.
When the Commission suspended him, he had harnessed 1,403 wins and won more than $14 million in earnings.
Two years ago, I asked him if he wished his life had turned out differently. He paused for a long time, then said, “No, not really. No. I’m not second-guessing nothing.”
And why should he? As Delp was known to say, “Ronnie and horses. Horses run fast for him.”
I hope Delp, who died in 2006, will have some mounts waiting for Ron.