In the whole joyful evening, there was only one small disappointment. "Any Bloodys?" asked Ronnie Franklin, rummaging around in the tack room refrigerator an hour after the race. "What did they do with the vodka? None for the jock, hey?"
There was champagne, it was pointed out. Ronnie said he didn't like the stuff. It was French champagne, he was told, Piper Heidsieck.
"Champagne gets me sick," Ronnie said rebelliously. A willing volunteer went off to fetch the ingredients for his preferred drink. Who at Churchill Downs last Saturday evening could have denied Ronnie Franklin anything? He had just won the Derby. Even more important, perhaps, in front of 128,488 witnesses he had just grown up as a jockey, magnificently confounding the critics who had poor-mouthed him ever since the Florida Derby, who had called Trainer Bud Delp crazy to keep such an inexperienced boy on the great Spectacular Bid.
In the winner's circle, Delp had bestowed the final accolade: "You're a pro, Ronnie." Gerald, the younger of the trainer's two sons, took it a little further in the barn. "He's a man now. He's class."
May 13, 1979
For all that, an hour after his victory Franklin still looked young and vulnerable, his face still red with exertion, his mouth gaping wide now and then with prodigious yawns. He had walked back around the track after his press conference, choosing not to ride as scheduled in the ninth race, the one after the Derby. Back at the barn, there was fun with Dick and Jane—Delp's brother and his wife—who picked Ronnie up and hugged him. How did he do in the ninth, Jane asked.
"I fell off," Ronnie said, deadpan.
"Oh, Ronnie, did you?" wailed Jane. She was still clutching a red rose from Spectacular Bid's triumphal wreath. Light dawned on her. "You're kidding me," she said, laughing. Ronnie got another hug, and discovered the bad news about the vodka. For a moment or two he collapsed on the tack room sofa. Then he yawned again, bounced up and went straight to the second stall.
"Hi, Big Dad," he crooned. "How you doin', Big Dad?" Bid looked round with mild curiosity as Moe Hall, his groom, dabbed peroxide on a small cut above a hoof.
"Hey," said Moe to the jockey, "how'd you manage to knock that spot off him?" Ronnie just went on crooning. It was the sound of pure satisfied joy.
Not only joy in his triumph. In two days he would be going back to Maryland. "It'll be neat to go back again and win all the races. When we get home we'll find a lot to do," he had said earlier in the week. At times, through Spectacular Bid's winter campaign in Florida, and later in Kentucky, the young jockey had been more than a little homesick. And ever since the Blue Grass, he had been living in two different worlds.
The first was a morning world out at Churchill Downs, which was often lashed with rain. There he had to endure a media onslaught that grew more insistent each day, and he also had to do routine exercise work on horses much less spectacular than Bid. Some mornings he would ride out onto the muddy track, come back soaked and shivering after 20 minutes only to be corralled and asked how he was feeling. Politely, patiently, he tried to give the photographers and reporters what they wanted before diving into Delp's parked Lincoln and turning the heater on.
It was a world of pressure, of questions that might induce serious self-doubts in a Muhammad Ali or a Reggie Jackson, let alone a 19-year-old whose career prospects three years back might not have risen far above wiping down tables at the local McDonald's. Fortunately for him—and for Delp, too—another world waited when early-morning work was done.
That consisted of a house in the woods, less than half-an-hour's drive up the Ohio Valley from Churchill Downs but entirely remote from what Delp calls the Louisville Jungle. The house is approached by a country road that tunnels deep into green woodland, decorated with the white blossoms of dogwood. The house is mellow brick, white-shuttered and porticoed.
Delp had long vowed that for the Derby he would seek a haven as far away from the track as he could. He had found it in this peaceful house, which he rented from a cousin of Dr. Alex Harthill, Bid's veterinarian.
There could scarcely have been better therapy for both trainer and jockey, but in particular for Ronnie Franklin, who, ever since the Florida Derby, had been subjected to constant sniping in the press. He was too inexperienced, the pundits claimed, to be riding a horse of Bid's caliber. What they implied was that he was too stupid.
"The papers don't bug me," Ronnie said the day before the Derby. "I don't let all that stuff worry me. But it would bug me a lot more if I wasn't living here."
He was sitting in a tattered old robe, his hair still wet from the shower. It was 10 in the morning, and he had just got through what he hoped would be his last ordeal-by-media before the big race. "Hey look," he said, "isn't this a neat game?"
It was one of those electronic games. Colored segments light up in a fast, random sequence and the player has to repeat them in the same order. Ronnie had it switched to the most demanding skill level and he beat the machine every time. Stupid? How about inexperienced?
Franklin had answered the question squarely enough earlier that morning when he had come to the last TV hurdle before the Derby, the obligatory Howard Cosell interview. Cosell had brought up the inevitable question concerning Franklin's lack of experience compared with the wealth of it enjoyed by Flying Paster's jockey, 42-year-old Don Pierce. With unerring logic, with a composure that few give him credit for, Ronnie replied. He had, had he not, as much experience on Spectacular Bid as Pierce had aboard Flying Paster?
The composure had been evident earlier when Delp and Ronnie drove to the interview. First Ronnie, with some care, fixed his hair with the help of the rearview mirror. Then, impatient with the slow driver of the car ahead, a TV "road-runner" guiding them to the rendezvous with Cosell, Franklin leaned across and honked the horn. Delp, who has a certain reverence for the the media, was horrified.
"That's ABC," he said.
"Idiots," Ronnie said blithely.
Delp slapped his arm. "Jerkwater!" he said.
The Delp family—and Ronnie can be included in that—has a distinct tendency in private to behave in as slapstick a style as those great cinematic clowns the Three Stooges. Bud, like Moe, is the one who dishes it out. The boys, Doug and Gerald, as well as Ronnie, infuriate him by tuning the car radio to blaring rock music. "We like to bug him," Doug says.
Delp responds to this in kind. "It's maddening," he says. "I give them three warnings. Then I stop on the side of the road, I whack all three of them and then I drive on."
This is merely the trivia of life with the Delps, of course. But it indicates a warmth and unity; it adds meaning to something Delp said last week about the way in which Ronnie managed to rise above the carping in the press and on TV: "What's important to Ronnie is what we feel here at home. Outsiders don't matter." Franklin's skill and judgment as a rider had been called into question plenty of times since the Florida Derby fiasco. Not his courage, though, and not his determination.
"Listen," Doug added, "he's a strong kid. He's from Dundalk [a blue-collar section of Baltimore]. He can take it. He can't dish it out too much, though, because he's too small."
Not too much, maybe, but some. A lot has been made of the physical intimidation Ronnie might have encountered in the Florida Derby. As difficult to handle, though, is verbal psyching in the jocks' room and in the paddock. At the Florida Derby, when the horses were being saddled, Darrel McHargue, prophetically as it turned out, yelled, "You sure you have enough room, Ronnie?"
Ronnie waited until the day of the Blue Grass at Keeneland last month for his revenge. Mystifyingly, McHargue turned up at Delp's barn at eight in the morning. Ronnie was there. "Good luck," said McHargue. "How's your colt?"
To Ronnie it seemed clear that McHargue had only one motive in being at Keeneland that day to ride Smiley Adams' Lot O' Gold, and that was to try to show him up, to win the ride on Bid for himself. Otherwise he would have been at Hollywood Park with the chance of more profitable rides.
Later, in the jocks' room, after McHargue had won the unprestigious fourth race, Franklin said slyly, "Congratulations, Darrel. Is that the one you came all the way out here to win?"
Not the most brilliant piece of repartee, but Delp crowed with laughter as Ronnie recounted the story in the house. "Who intimidated who? The Six Million Dollar Man had a short circuit," Delp said. Ronnie looked pleased with himself.
But all along last Friday, Franklin also was trying to put the big race out of his head, without apparent success. "I don't think about the Derby," he said. "I mean, I try not to think about it." He sipped ruminatively on a can of Coke, gave a little of it to Champ, Delp's Labrador pup. "Hey, it won't be Cokes tomorrow," he said suddenly. "It'll be Bloody Marys."
Now the win is history, even though the Bloody Mary forecast was wrong. But the party took place, sure enough, starting somewhat surrealistically with Bob Smith, Bid's exercise rider, in his elegant Derby three-piece pink suit, his rich brown tie secured with a diamond pin, leading the horse around the barn, and Bud Delp spewing prophetic doggerel, Ali-fashion, about the Preakness: "He'll win by four and it could be more!"
And then, on a day when it seemed there couldn't be any more good news for Franklin, word came that Steve Cauthen, riding in his first classic race in England, the Two Thousand Guineas, had won on a 20-to-1 outsider called Tap On Wood.
"Whee-hoo!" Ronnie shouted. He had thought a lot about Cauthen, he had confided earlier. If he could do it in last year's Derby, so could I, he had told himself.
In that case, then, would he like to ride in Europe like Cauthen? Ronnie Franklin didn't have to think long for his answer. "I just want to go back to Maryland and ride for Bud," he said simply.
There's a lot to be said for that, too.