They enter the jockeys' room without notice and without fanfare, looking for Ron Franklin. And they always find him.

Franklin doesn't know when they're coming, but he expects them -- the officials who administer unannounced drug tests. Franklin, who has battled drug problems for most of his 10 years on the race track, agreed to such tests as part of his reinstatement as a jockey last summer.

Late in 1985, Franklin said, he was determined to keep his tack, only to lose it to cocaine use the following May. "At the time," he said, "my dad had just passed away, and I was so confused, my head just blew up. It was one of the worst periods of my life."

This time, he's taking steps to maintain his whip hand, continuing regular visits to a Laurel drug counselor and voluntarily submitting a urine sample twice a week.

"I do that mainly to keep a safety on myself," Franklin said. "I don't have to do it, but it helps me keep a focus on things. It serves as a support system.

"It's not like every day I think about {using cocaine}. But, sometimes, I can feel it in my stomach; it tightens up real bad. Marijuana was never a problem {to give up}. Downers, they were no problem to get off of. But coke was a different story. They say you can't get physically addicted to it, but that's a bunch of stuff. Anybody who's been through it knows."

Joe Monahan liked the strides Franklin was making on and off the track, and in January, became Franklin's agent. Franklin since has risen from ninth into a second-place tie in Laurel's standings (with 62 victories in this meeting) behind Kent Desormeaux.

"Selling him hasn't been a problem at any point," said Monahan, who also books mounts for jockey Alberto Delgado. "He's the second-best rider in Maryland by far. When you're winning the way he is, the past never gets brought up."

With Desormeaux sidelined at least three more weeks with a separated clavicle, Franklin is in a position to further promote himself. Monahan has booked him astride some of the horses Desormeaux normally would ride for such prominent trainers as King Leatherbury, Charlie Hadry and Dale Capuano.

To capitalize on that opportunity, Franklin appealed his seven-day suspension (for a riding infraction) that was to begin Thursday. Yesterday, the Maryland Racing Commission granted the stay; Ken Schertle, the commission's executive director, said a hearing on the matter likely would be scheduled for April.

The ruling not only will afford Franklin a chance to be the No. 1 rider at Pimlico (which opens Friday and concludes May 31), it will allow him to stay active at a critical time.

"I tend to move too soon {in races}," Franklin said, "and I think that's because I'm still getting my timing back. I think I would have won a few more races if I just would have sat still a little more. But you get that timing back by riding more and more races."

"When you've been away from the races the way Ronny has," said Monahan, "you tend to become too anxious to win."

He may be overeager, but Franklin is winning regularly these days. And as the triumphs have mounted, so have the earnings.

But Franklin said that does not enhance the likelihood of his using drugs. "I don't touch my money; it goes straight to my accountant," he said. "I don't even get an allowance. Like, if my fiancee needs grocery money, he'll give her what she needs; then, he just pays the rest of my bills. We intentionally had it set up as an escrow account. A person in my position really doesn't need money. I've got everything I need at home."

Franklin spends his idle time now working on cars, dabbling in woodwork, cooking. He even took a business course at Howard Community College with hopes of opening a restaurant. But he withdrew from the class.

"When I signed up for the class, I thought we were going to be dark on Mondays," he said. "But when we started racing on Mondays, the night classes became too much."

When Franklin rode Spectacular Bid to a near Triple Crown in 1979 as an apprentice, he thrived on an energetic night life. Now, at 28, he said, "I take my sobriety very seriously."

"I've really got my head into what I'm doing," Franklin said. "I'm trying as hard as I can in every race, whether it's on a $5,000 horse or a stakes horse. I just really feel good about the situation I'm in.

"But even with all that, my main goal isn't to ride a certain amount of winners, or to be a certain place in the {jockey} standings. My goal is to stay straight."