On Feb. 4, 1978, trainer Bud Delp introduced an unknown jockey to the Maryland racing circuit. Delp had spent two years schooling and developing the 18-year-old rider from Dundalk; he extolled the boy's talents and practically certified his future.
"He's further advanced than any rider I've ever brought around," Delp said at the time. "He's going to be heard from."
Ronnie Franklin hit the Maryland racing scene like a thunderbolt, and the effects were felt across America. He led the nation's apprentice jockeys in victories in 1978 and rode Spectacular Bid to a near Triple Crown in 1979.
Franklin was heard from. He had a fistfight with Angel Cordero Jr. He was arrested twice for drug-related offenses and spent 60 days in jail.
Franklin, 25, returned to Maryland three weeks ago after a five-year stint primarily in Louisiana, where Delp had moved his stable. Franklin came back to spend time with his father, who has cancer, and to escape the memories of his shattered marriage.
He attempted a Maryland comeback in the spring of 1984 but stayed less than two weeks.
"My wife didn't like it here," he said. "I should have stayed here and sent her back. But I went back to Louisiana with her, and that's when the trouble between us started."
Last Thursday, he divorced his wife, Tyane, whom he married 1 1/2 years ago.
Franklin is placid, reflective and self-confident in a manner that belies his troubled past. Compared to his debut seven years ago, his homecoming has generated barely a rumble.
He is riding for Bud Delp's brother Richard and for Dick Dutrow, both successful Maryland trainers. He has won eight of 58 races at Pimlico and Laurel.
"Ronnie is a good, strong rider," Dick Delp said. "He hasn't caught on here yet, but he will."
That was not a problem for Franklin in the beginning. Bud Delp was coming off a year in which he led trainers in victories at Bowie's winter meeting, at Chicago's Sportsman Park during the Maryland race tracks' labor strike and at Laurel's fall meeting. Franklin benefited from Delp's success. "I was getting on a lot of live horses," Franklin said.
But none like Spectacular Bid, who carried Franklin into the eye of the Triple Crown storm. That spring and summer swept past Franklin like a hurricane and was nearly as turbulent.
"I think about it a lot," he said.
March 6, 1979: Spectacular Bid wins the Florida Derby by 4 1/2 lengths, but Bud Delp is infuriated by Franklin's erratic ride. Franklin claims Cordero and Jorge Velasquez conspired to cause him the rough trip. Delp calls Franklin an idiot and says, "If Bill Shoemaker called me (about riding Spectacular Bid), I wouldn't hang up on him."
Franklin remembered and smiled. "Bud's a funny man," he said. "If something goes wrong, he's gonna let you know about it, and about a couple million other people, too. But I respect him. He brought me up around the track, and he's always been good to me."
May 19, 1979: Spectacular Bid follows his Kentucky Derby victory with a 5 1/2-length triumph in the Preakness Stakes, one-fifth of a second off Pimlico's track record. Afterward, Franklin says, "We're a cinch for the Triple Crown."
Franklin: "I didn't know what was going on. It all happened too daggone quick. The whole country was watching, and the thought didn't cross my mind. I didn't realize it, that all them people were watching me. I was just some kid out of Dundalk."
June 6, 1979: Three days before the Belmont, a fight erupts between Franklin and Cordero in the Belmont Park jockeys' room following a race in which their horses bumped. The jockeys are separated after wrestling to the floor. Each is fined $250.
"Angel and I get along pretty good now," Franklin said. "We've had our spats here and there, but I've learned a lot from him. After (the Belmont), I was riding up at the Meadowlands; he would ship in and ride a stake. We would talk, and he told me some good pointers about riding."
June 9, 1979: Spectacular Bid, the 3-to-10 favorite to become thoroughbred racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, surrenders his lead in the Belmont stretch and finishes third. Later, it is discovered he stepped on a safety pin before the race.
Franklin: "He was the greatest horse I've ever been on, without a doubt. I wish I had a chance to do it all again; I'd surely do a lot of things differently -- the way I rode, the things I did. But I think it might have helped my career."
History revealed otherwise. Nine days after the Belmont, Franklin was arrested at Disneyland for possessing cocaine, and five days later Bill Shoemaker replaced him as Spectacular Bid's jockey.
"Getting taken off Bid was the biggest disappointment of my life," Franklin said. "I couldn't disagree with it at all. I couldn't blame nobody but myself. It was something that had to be done."
Franklin said he never was under the influence of drugs when he rode Spectacular Bid. In 1982, he pleaded guilty in Lexington, Ky., for attempting to possess cocaine and was jailed 60 days.
"I started knowin' the Lord then," he said. "When I got back, I was the leading rider at the Fairgrounds, and I've kept my faith in the Lord ever since.
"He's gonna guide me in the right way now. It's given me peace of mind. It changed my life. It really didn't matter to me what (friends) thought, as long as I was hard working and showing up in the morning.
"I'm planting my feet and staying in Maryland. I just wanna go back to being the regular Ronald Franklin."