Every year in spring, many a Baltimorean’s fancy turns to … no, not love. Horse racing!
“Baltimoreans share certain enthusiasms like crabs and snowballs. One of the things I think that we all share is the love of horse racing,” says Baltimore author Jack Gilden. “Even if we don’t pay attention the rest of the year, we have a Triple Crown race. The Triple Crown is like having three Super Bowls in horse racing, and one of them is here: the Preakness.”
Gilden’s latest book—“The Fast Ride: Spectacular Bid and the Undoing of a Sure Thing” (University of Nebraska Press, 2022), due out April 1—reveals the gritty underbelly of Maryland horse racing by tracing the stunning ascent and descent of jockey Ronnie Franklin.
Franklin was only 19 in 1979 when he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness riding Spectacular Bid, one of the greatest racehorses of all time. Franklin’s story is the framework for a deep-diving exploration of the industry. From its owners, horses, famed jockeys and tracks to tragedies and triumphs, Gilden sets these very personal stories against the backdrop of the society at large, inside of which this rarefied world existed.
Growing up in Pikesville and Owings Mills, Gilden was part of a creative family. His mother was a talented artist, as is his sister. His father owned a gallery. He loved the Colts and played varsity football at Owings Mills High, where his interest in journalism was sparked during a sports journalism conference. A humanities major at Washington College, he continued writing and authored a published piece on heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis that shed light on the sports legend’s impact on civil rights.
After helming a successful ad agency for years, Gilden turned his attention to writing full time. His first book, “Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL” (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), was well-received. The catalyst for his new book came during a phone call from a horse owner who had employed Franklin and who had seen the accolades for “Collision.”
“He asked me to consider writing something about Ronnie Franklin,” Gilden says. “I said, ‘Well, I’m not really interested.’” Gilden had heard the tale of Franklin’s “meteoric rise” and fall from grace, a sports-world cliché. But after speaking with Franklin’s family members, who were furious that Ronnie’s story had never been truthfully told, he was hooked.
Although traveling to interview sources was curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gilden spoke to about 50 people, getting all sides of the story. Particularly engaging is Gilden’s portrait of the emerging Latino jockeys and the challenges they met head on.
“As a Jewish person, you can’t help but feel empathy for people who are discriminated against,” he says. “But beyond that, dealing with prejudice and dealing with the effects of bigotry are fascinating as human behavior—like the stories between jockey Jacinto Vásquez and horse owner Frank Whiteley and the stories of jockey and trainer Ángel Tomás Cordero Jr.”
Gilden admits that writing is a tough way to make a living. But he loves immersing himself in a story, happily spending hours alone working. He’s not talking about his next book, but he hopes this one is a smash—and maybe inspires a movie.
His advice to aspiring writers?
“If you really want to write a book, nail your bedroom door shut, sit in there and work 12 to 15 hours a day.”