Former Nebraska Sen. Roman Hruska once complained that America discriminates against the incompetent and the untalented. "There are a lot of mediocre people," he said. "They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance?"
Hruska would have been cheered had he been at Gulfstream Park this morning by trainer Bud Delp's announcement of the jockey who will ride Spectacular Bid the rest of the season.
Speculation had centered on the legendary Bill Shoemaker and the brilliant, young Darrell McHargue. But Delp opened a sealed envelope, produced a statement from owner Harry Meyerhoff and read:
"Ron Franklin will continue to ride Spectacular Bid in all his races. The horse runs very well for Ronnie Franklin. They have an affinity for each other."
This affinity had not been too evident in last week's Florida Derby, when Franklin's performance eclipsed Shoemaker's misjudged finish in the 1957 Kentucky Derby as the most egregious stakes ride of modern times. Spectacular Bid won only after bumping into the starting gate, getting checked on the first turn, blocked on the backstretch and going wide into the stretch.
Delp castigated Franklin publicly after the race, calling him "an idiot" and worse, and said he would discuss with the owner a change in riders. Delp seemed to be leaning toward a swith, but Meyerhoff evidently stuck with Franklin.
Ron Franklin obviously was born under a lucky star. Last year he was just one of hundreds of apprentice jockeys trying to crack into a tough business, and he was blessed with no more aptitude than many of his peers. But he was the one who found himself at the right place at the right time.
Franklin had come out of the Dundalk section of Baltimore to go to work for Delp in 1976, and underwent two years of preparation before he was permitted to ride a race.
His timing was exquisite. At the time Franklin was launching a career, Delp was embarking on the greatest hot streak he had ever had as a trainer. All Franklin had to do was hold on to his mounts for dear life to be the leading apprentice rider in the nation.
Neutral observers thought Franklin was winning only because his mounts were so superior, but Delp always gave his rider full credit. A few days before the Florida Denby he was subjected to skeptical questions about his use of Franklin and he responded, "Ronnie has communication with the horse. You could tell that before he ever rode a race. It's just a natural thing.
"Oh, I know that at first he looked like a mucksack, but we talked horses every night, sat and analyzed every race he rode. It helped him to come along. And he helps me. He's like a little trainer out there. He's a horseman. When I leave the track after Ronnie's ridden, I'm satisfied 99 percent of the time."
But Delp remains almost alone in that assessment of Franklin. The youngster has not ridden notably well in Florida this winter, and other trainers have hardly been clamoring for his services. (In the last full week of the Gulfstream meeting, Franklin got a total of three mounts for trainers other than Delp.)
If Franklin was undistinguished in run-of-the-mill competition, he showed in the Florida Derby that he is completely out of his element in the upper echelons of racing. With tough rivals like Angel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velasquez and Jeffrey Fell trying to trap him and intimidate him, Franklin did not merely commit errors in judgment. He panicked.
So why would Delp and Meyerhoff put a $10 million property in such shaky hands? Partly, their decision was based on sentiment and loyalty; both obviously view their jockey with paternalistic affection. But their decision also stems from their belief in the invincibility of Spectacular Bid. And this is an attitude that may bode ill for the horse's future.
Spectacular Bid just might be the most gifted thoroughbred of our era, and lovers of the sport want him to get every chance to fulfill his potential. Too many great horses (such as Secretariat) have had their records blemished for all time because of the failings of the people around them.
Delp and Meyerhoff ought to be trying to protect their horse from every possible pitfall. Instead, Delp has been talking as if the outcome of the Triple Crown is a foregone conclusion, and Meyerhoff is saying by his decision today that he can afford to take a few gambles with Spectacular Bid.
Of course, they may be right. As Delp remarked, "If Ronnie couldn't get him beat in the Florida Derby, I don't see how he can get him beat at all."
That is a vote of confidence of which Roman Hruska would be proud.