Ron Franklin leads a charmed life.
He won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness because Spectacular Bid was good enough to overcome the rider's lack of skill. Today, Franklin kept his riding assignment in the Belmont Stakes when Pimlico's stewards held him blameless for a disqualification Thursday.
If he had drawn a suspension for his ride abroad Croatoan in the eighth race, he would have been forced to sit out the third leg of the Triple Crown.
Croatoan was breaking from the No. 3 post position, and as soon as the gate opened he swerved sharply to his left. He cut in front of No. 2, Ambitious Ruler, then smashed into No. 1, Fully Loaded, eliminating both of those horses from contention.
Croatoan did enough damage to be disqualified from first and placed out of the money. But Franklin had made enough of an effort to pull his mount away from the other horses that the stewarts concluded he had not been guilty of carelessness.
The incident might have happened to any jockey - except that such misadventures typify Franklin rides. The teen-ager did not display much aptitude when he launched his career at Pimlico a year ago, but he is riding even worse now. People who watch Franklin on a day-to-day basis at Pimlico have been horrified by his lack of control over the horses he rides.
On Preakness day, he gave a performance very much like the one on Croatoan. Franklin's mount, Bear Arms, was breaking from the No. 1 post position, took a right-hand turn as he left the gate, eliminated the horses next to him and almost eliminated himself.
After Bear Arms got back into gear, Franklin had him zigzagging through the skretch in a manner reminscent of Gale Sayers in the open field. Bear Arms lost by a length when he was much the best.
On Tuesday, Franklin's ride aboard a horse named Armada Strike stunned even the normally noncommital chart-caller for the Daily Racing Form. The foot notes for the official chart of the race say: "Armada Strike, bumped at the start . . . advanced inside to near the quarter pole, drifted wide into the stretch, angled inside in the upper stretch, took up behind Curlew's Cry and angled to the outside, finished fast to just miss and was obviously best."
Bettors who lost their money on Croatoan, Bear Arms, Armada Strike and others may have a bit of difficulty swallowing the media's praise of gutty little Ronnie Franklin and his wondrous affinity with Spectacular Bid.
The only reason Franklin has avoided the embarrassments in the Triple Crown that he suffers regularly at Pimlico is the latitude Spectacular Bid's superiority gives him. Franklin can afford to lose several lengths in order to keep the champion out of trouble.
In the Preakness, he went to ridiculous lengths to do it.When the field raced into the first turn, Angel Cordero Jr. had Screen King in the middle of the track, so far away from the rail that Franklin could have driven a tank inside him. But he was so afraid of getting into trouble that he took Spectacular Bid even farther to the outside. If Cordero had gone into Row A of the parking lot, Franklin would have been in Row B.
Franklin's apologists will argue, incontrovertibly, that he has gotten the job done, that he has ridden Spectacular Bid to seven straight victories this season. But he horse deserves more.
He deserves the chance to demonstrate unequivocally how great a horse he is. It is not enough to know that he could have set a hack record in the Preakness with even a minimally competent ride. And it will be small consolation to know that he was the best horse when he is eventually beaten because of Franklin's ineptitude. That will inevitably happen, as soon as the colt moves into competition where he is not a half-dozen lenghts the best.
When Franklin does get Spectacular Bid beaten, it may surprise a few of the ill-informed reporters and television commentators who have used adjectives like "poised" and "brilliant" to describe him. But it won't surprise anybody who has been observing his incompetency at Pimlico this spring.