When jockeys Ron Franklin and Angel Cordero Jr. grappled with each other on the floor of the Belmont Park jockeys' room, neutral observers had a little trouble deciding which of the combatants to root for. The crybaby kid? Or the scheming veteran?
Neither of the riders has behaved with much intelligence or maturity in the feud that has almost overshadowed Spectacular Bid's preparations for the Belmont Stakes. But Cordero was solely to blame for the altercation after Wednesday's fourth race.
Cordero was breaking from post position seven on a first-time starter named Ski Pants and, as fate would have it, Franklin was next to him in post six aboard Lorine. When the gate opened, Ski Pants broke to the inside and bumped Lorine - a fairly common occurrence in a race for inexperienced 2-year-olds. But what followed was not commonplace.
Instead of trying to straighten his horse's course, Cordero did the opposite. Head-on films of the race show Cordero's right arm pumping, driving his horse into Franklin's.
Belmont's stewards decided today that Cordero was not guilty of careless riding, and merely fined him and Franklin $250 each for fighting. But Spectacular Bid's trainer, Bud Delp, disagreed with their interpretation of the race. "Cordero wanted to bury him," he said. "He wanted him on the ground. He made no effort to take the horse off the boy."
If Cordero's actions were unforgiveable, they were at least understandable. The trouble between him and Franklin started in the Florida Derby, when Franklin gave a perforamce of monumental ineptitude and then blamed his troubles on a Latin conspiracy involving Cordero and Jorge Velasquez. He expressed this opinion using a racial epithet. Franklin's accusations were as erroneous as they were churlish. Velasquez, in particular, never even got close to Spectacular Bid.
Cordero may have concluded that Franklin was touched by paranoia, and he tried to play on it in the Preakness. Riding Screen King, Cordero stayed in the middle of the track, figuring that Franklin would probably be too wary to go inside him. He was right. Franklin kept Spectacular Bid on the far outside, losing many lengths of ground, enough to have cost a lesser horse the race.
"That was poor sportsmanship," Franklin complained to a nationwide television audience after the Preakness. Cordero might have been blamed for worrying more about Spectacular Bid than his own horse, but nothing he did was unsporting. He had merely tried to give Franklin enough rope to hang himself.
Cordero might well have felt a burning frustration after the Preakness. He is the best jockey in America, bar none. He could outride and outsmart Franklin on any day of their lives. But it was Franklin who was getting the glory.
When he wants to, Cordero can be vindictive. Last year, he was miffed when trainer Laz Barrera had not picked him to deputize for the suspended Steve Cauthen and ride Affirmed in a big California race. Months later, in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, Cordero, riding a hopeless longshot, kept Affirmed outside him, and seemed to let Velasquez and Alydar through along the rail. That set in motion a chain of events that resulted in Affirmed's disqualification.
Cordero's animosity toward Franklin lends an intriguing element of suspense to the 111th Belmont Stakes. Trainer LeRoy Jolley tabbed him to ride General Assembly Saturday, perhaps remembering the way Cordero had brilliantly nursed Bold Forbes and led all the way to win the 1976 Belmont.
General Assembly will almost surely have the early lead Saturday, and Spectacular Bid will have to get by him somehow in order to complete his sweep of the Triple Crown. Franklin might prefer to go by way of the Hempstead Turnpike.