Franklin’s nephew and fellow jockey, Walter Cullum, confirmed his death.
Franklin was just 19 when he rode Spectacular Bid to glory in the Triple Crown series. Trainer Grover “Bud” Delp looked past the young rider’s lack of experience, trusting his knowing hands and innate feel for horses.
“Horses just ran for Ronnie,” said the late Delp’s son, Gerald. “He just had that God-given ability.”
He recalled Franklin’s early work with a tempestuous filly named Pioneer Patty. “No one could get on her in the morning,” Delp said. “But then Ronnie came along and they just loved each other. They won seven races in a row.”
Franklin was a 16-year-old dropout from Patapsco High when he showed up at the track seeking work in 1976. “He seemed a nice little feller, though he’d never touched a horse,” Bud Delp recalled in a 2004 interview.
Franklin moved in with the Delp family and became like a third son to the great Maryland trainer.
“Oh, we had a lot of fun,” Gerald Delp said. “He was a little guy, but he thought he was as big as Muhammad Ali. I remember we were in a bar in New Orleans one time and he got into it with a guy who was about 6-foot-6. Ronnie was a guy you wanted to have in your corner.”
Bud Delp sent Franklin to the Middleburg (Va.) Training Center for seasoning. There, the rider developed a rapport with the young Spectacular Bid, a colt of modest lineage.
“They learned together,” Cullum said of horse and rider.
Spectacular Bid wasted no time establishing his greatness, winning seven of nine races on his way to being named the nation’s champion 2-year-old. He was even better the next year, winning the Derby as a 3-5 favorite and then taking the Preakness by a commanding 5½ lengths. At that point, it was not impossible to find handicappers who believed he was greater than Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed — the brilliant parade of Triple Crown winners from the 1970s.
But Spectacular Bid’s quest to join them faltered in the Belmont Stakes, where he faded in the stretch to finish third. He famously stepped on a safety pin in his stall before the race, a story some have questioned over the years but that Gerald Delp said was absolutely true.
Regardless, Franklin took Spectacular Bid out at a “suicidal pace” in the 1 1/2-mile race, chasing a quick-starting long shot.
“Ronnie certainly didn’t run a wise race,” Gerald Delp said. “But he was under so much stress and pressure. I just think Ronnie wanted it all over with.”
Franklin blamed himself. “I rushed Bid out of the gate that day,” he recalled in 2004. “I didn’t give him a chance.”
Bud Delp was also not satisfied with Franklin’s ride and just like that, the jockey’s time aboard the Hall of Fame horse was over. He found it difficult to watch as Spectacular Bid evolved into a more dominant horse at age 4 than he had been at age 3, with Bill Shoemaker aboard.
“He had to accept it, because time moved on,” Cullum said of Franklin losing his greatest mount. “But he never let go of it.”
In the years that followed, Franklin began a long battle with substance abuse, a problem he said was driven in part by his desire to escape the stress and shame from the Belmont performance.
“He was a very nice young kid, a natural rider. If he had kept his head on, he could have been a great, great jockey,” said Tom Meyerhoff, whose late father, Harry, owned Spectacular Bid. “But there was too much limelight, too quickly, though no one could have anticipated that. It was a lot for him to handle; he wasn’t prepared for all of the press.”
Gerald Delp said Franklin got over the Belmont loss in later years.
“He loved horses. He loved people. He loved life,” Delp said. “Like all of us, he had his demons, and for him, it was drug addiction.”
Despite his struggles, Franklin won more than 1,400 races and more than $14 million in prize money over a 15-year career. As recently as a decade ago, he talked of returning to the sport, though he was repeatedly denied licenses from state commissions because of his drug problems. He continued galloping horses in California until he was diagnosed with cancer.
“I don’t think he ever gave up on that,” Cullum said of his uncle’s hope to ride again. “He always wanted to come back. He was most comfortable in life being around the horses.”
Franklin said as much in 2004, lamenting: “I really miss the horses, especially in the spring. That’s the worst.”
Cullum said Franklin moved back to Baltimore to receive treatment after he was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago. He said his uncle was drug-free in recent years and that they enjoyed crabbing trips together through 2017.
“Aside from a few regrets, he lived the life he wanted to live,” he said.
Franklin is survived by his mother, Marian; his brother, Tony Franklin; and his four sisters, Sharon Wallace, Carolyn Franklin, Barbara Kaminkow and Nancy Fram. The family is planning a private service.
Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.