When horse-racing fans make their way into Pimlico Race Course on Saturday for the 147th Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, they should be walking by a statue of Spectacular Bid and touching it for luck — just as Baltimore Ravens fans do when they pass by Johnny Unitas’ statue at M&T Bank Stadium.
“Not only Spectacular Bid, but I think Ronnie Franklin ought to be on top of him,” said Jack Gilden, author of “The Fast Ride: Spectacular Bid and the Undoing of a Sure Thing.”
Yes, he should. Ronnie Franklin should be every bit as much a Baltimore sports icon as Unitas or Ray Lewis or Cal Ripken. Franklin was a Dundalk, Maryland, boy who at the age of 19 led Spectacular Bid to 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories and was an Eclipse Award for Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in 1978.
Instead, he and this great horse have been shunned and forgotten, remembered for what they failed to do — win the Belmont Stake and the Triple Crown — instead of for what they accomplished.
It’s a complicated legacy, but Gilden, in a great read, has uncovered it in all its gruesome glory in his book — a young kid brought into the racing business by a veteran Maryland trainer who also introduced him to the drug world that was about to consume a nation. Gilden has come out believing that Spectacular Bid and Franklin have been shortchanged and are worthy of a new place in history, warts and all.
“He’s (Franklin) one of the great stories, the great athletes that ever came out of the city, right up there with Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken,” Gilden said. “To win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes as a 19-year-old, it’s just incredible what he accomplished. I think that’s lost by history.”
Lost by history and a sordid tale surrounding the influence of a racetrack culture that was awash in drugs on a kid from a blue-collar steel town who had dropped out of high school at the age of 15 and who grew up as a flawed, addicted man who passed away in anonymity of lung cancer at the age of 58 four years ago.
“The idea that he is somehow a pariah because he had addiction problems … first of all, it wasn’t his fault really,” Gilden said. “He was so young when these powerful men got him involved with the drugs. We have very prim, puritanical ideas of how we should behave … Today people are recognizing the pressures young people are under and mental health issues. Back then, nobody gave a crap about that. They didn’t care about Ronnie Franklin’s mental health issues.”
Despite the drugs and the pressure, Franklin would have a career worthy of recognition in horse racing — 1,403 wins of the 9,242 races he rode between 1978 and 1992, with purses of more than $14 million.
And Bid — a horse so renowned, for both good and bad reasons that it is often identified with just the word “Bid” — won 26 of the 30 races he ran, earning $2.8 million.
“He only really had the one failure, the Belmont race,” Gilden said. “I make the point in the book that (jockey) Jacinto (Vasquez) beat Secretariat on Onion (in the Whitney Handicap). They all lose once in a while.”
But this loss seemed to define both Spectacular Bid and Franklin. There was a lot of drama at Belmont Park that day, including Franklin’s ongoing feud with heralded jockey Angel Cordero, who tried to bully Franklin on the track and in the locker room. Franklin was criticized for his ride on the horse at the Belmont — driving his animal to the front, right out of the gate. He did that because those were the instructions given to the young jockey that day.
Spectacular Bid would burn out down the stretch and finish third, behind Coastal and Golden Act.
In his book, Gilden digs into what happened that day: “It was (jockey) Jacinto Vasquez who knew the real reason behind the bizarre ride. He knew why the boy had chased the long shot and unwisely burned up his horse out there. ‘He just do what his trainer tell him to do.’ Vasquez said.”
Nine days later, Franklin was arrested in the parking lot at Disneyland and charged with cocaine possession.
“It’s a terrible tragedy,” Gilden said.” The worst part of the tragedy, besides what happened to him (Franklin) is that these lies have been perpetuated in perpetuity. It’s gone on for decades, about him, about the horse, about who was responsible, and all the blame went on his head forever.”
There is not much interest in Saturday’s Preakness. The Kentucky Derby long-shot winner, Rich Strike, isn’t running. Maybe it would be a good time to start the reclamation of Spectacular Bid and Ronnie Franklin. “I think it would undo one of the great injustices if he was brought back into the fold,” Gilden said.
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified the horse that came in second in the 1979 Belmont Stakes.