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A Drug Bust, a Paternity Suit—Troubles Come in Battalions for Jockey Ronnie Franklin

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Son,” horse trainer Bud Delp said icily, “I want the truth. If you lie to me, you’re finished. I may tell a lot of bullshit, but I don’t lie.”

Before him in Delp’s small house in Laurel, Md. was Ronald Joseph Franklin, the 19-year-old jockey and protégé whom the trainer has called “my third son.” Two days earlier Franklin, who rode Spectacular Bid to victory in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, had been picked up on charges of possession of cocaine in the parking lot at Disneyland.

“The guard looked in the car window,” Delp says, “and saw Ronnie with his two cousins. He had the coke between his legs. They recognized him, and that’s why he bit the dust. They handcuffed him and put him behind bars for five hours. He’s a tough little boy, but when he got back here I mean he was whipped.”

The arrest was the most damaging in a series of misfortunes that have threatened the career of the country’s most successful young jockey. Not long after the Preakness in May, Ronnie was fined $100 for kicking one of his mounts, then $25 for cursing a Pimlico security guard, finally $250 for fighting with fellow jockey Angel Cordero. Things got worse. He rode badly in the Belmont and wound up third. A young woman who works at a Pimlico concession stand named him in a paternity suit. And after his drug bust, Delp announced that veteran jockey Willie Shoemaker would replace Franklin on Spectacular Bid. It was perhaps the unkindest cut of all.

“He’s my baby,” said Ronnie’s mother defensively. “I think they’re picking on him, and I don’t understand why. There’s a heck of a lot of pressure, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.” Delp now agrees. Under his supervision, young Franklin has submitted once again to the harsh discipline of a jockey in training, including an early curfew. Delp justifies changing Bid’s jockey as the only way to “take the pressure off Ronnie. He’s all mixed up, and we want to let him go back to being a teenager.”

It may be his salvation. The balky son of a truck driver, Franklin dropped out of 10th grade three years ago “because I wasn’t interested in learning about the past.” Determined to escape the factory town of Dundalk, Md.—”I didn’t want to be behind no windows”—Ronnie took a job walking horses for Delp and was soon apprenticed as a jockey. In his first year up he won purses of $1.7 million, made $200,000 of his own and acquired a taste for Bloody Marys and a life-style he couldn’t handle. “He’s a kid,” Delp says. “He’s going to be a kid for many more years because that’s the way he wants to be.”

Delp is hopeful that Ronnie’s luck may be turning. He could win dismissal of the drug charge since his record is clean and there is some question as to whose cocaine it was. Franklin also denies even having dated the young woman who has accused him of fathering her 5-month-old boy. “Her first name is Shirley—I don’t even know her last name,” he says. His difficulties with Cordero and other jockeys appear to be behind him.

Most important, Bud Delp, the man responsible for Franklin’s climb from nowhere, is now defending his protégé on all counts: the paternity suit (“It wasn’t Ronnie—she’s not going to get anything from him”); the horse-kicking episode (“Hell, all the riders do that”); and sassing the security guard (“He wouldn’t let Ronnie through the gate in my Lincoln Continental even though it’s got nine stickers on it”).

Ronnie’s attitude is measurably improved. “I was scared,” he admits of his arrest. So far racing officials have taken no action on the charge and won’t until his day in court. “There’ll be no more limelight for that kid,” vows Delp. “He’s going back into the house where he belongs. In a year or two, when we get another big horse, well, that’s another story.” Delp adds, in genuine remorse, “It’s too bad. I let him get too big too quick.”