Bob Franklin was only 72 when he was called to heaven's backstretch on May 1, 1990, but he crammed a lot of living into his time on this earth. Much of it at Assiniboia Downs.
Bob was a simple, quiet, black man from Clarinda, Iowa who knew all about racial prejudice. A good part of his life would pass before the civil rights movement became a reality.
Bob had a close relationship with his mother, Lorraine, a hard-working woman who basically raised Bob on her own after her husband left. As a youth, Bob was a natural born athlete who excelled at football, basketball and baseball. In the end it was his maternal grandfather, Joseph Howe who got him started in the business that would become his life long passion - the breeding and racing of horses.
After the war, Bob and a friend of his nicknamed "Pistol" came to Canada from Iowa, and for the most part Bob never left. He traveled on the old prairie racing circuit from Edmonton to Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and our own Polo Park race track. When the Downs opened in 1958 Bob decided to make it his home. If you take a close look at the cloth that makes up our Portage Avenue track, you'll find a part of Bob Franklin's soul.
Bob liked the Downs. He was comfortable here. He was a quiet, modest man, and a bit of a loner who was friendly to all. He came to know everyone and everyone knew and liked him, but he preferred to observe the goings on from afar. He wasn't one to seek out the limelight.
You only needed one hand to count the horses that made up Bob's stable, his was a small operation. He didn't believe in walking machines, he hand-walked his own horses. After all, that's what he was there for!
The track kitchen was Bob's home, but he slept in his tack room or sometimes he just got comfortable with his horses in the barn. I'm told that he was the first year-round resident of one of the old tin shacks in the backstretch, and that in the cold Winnipeg winters he used old programs for insulation. But don't feel sorry for Bob, he was where he wanted to be.
I didn't personally know Bob, so I spoke to people who did, and here's what two of his friends had to say.
Veteran horseman Doug Mustard's father, Wendell, was a good friend of Bob's, and the two were stabled together for years. Doug said Bob was good horseman who worked with what he had and enjoyed doing it. He also told me of the time he went to a Blue Bomber football game with Franklin in the early '70s. Winnipeg was playing Montreal and it was one of those low scoring defensive struggles. On the way home Doug spoke of how boring the game was, but not Bob. Through his eyes, the pair had just seen a great defensive battle and Bob appreciated what they had witnessed.
Bob found good where others couldn't, much in the way he managed his modest stable. He took in horses others didn't want. If a horse needed someone to nurse it back to health, Bob Franklin was there. Horses were his life and passion and he got many horses back to the track after others had given up on them. A broken-down forgotten horse was lucky to be taken in and looked after by old Bob Franklin. Bob loved them all!
Lynn White, owner of 2013 marathon specialist Thunderclap Newman, had Bob Franklin as his trainer in the early '70s and spoke fondly of him. According to Lynn, Bob had many friends, and he knew no one who had a bad word to say about the unassuming man from Iowa. Lynn explained that Bob had a host of homemade concoctions that he used on his animals. Some were nutritional supplements and others were medicinal potions. Bob was always willing to share his goodies, but he'd never disclose the ingredients - that was Bob's secret.
To give you an idea of the respect people had for Bob, let me take you back to the $30,000 Manitoba Derby of 1976. Ken Hendricks had just finished winning the big race with Manitoba-bred Merry's Jay, the first ever Manitoba-bred to win the race, and it was time to celebrate! But Hendricks was scheduled to ride Franklin's horse Jimba in the last race on the card that day, and a lot of saddlesmiths would have called it a day and booked off that last race to join in the party. Not Hendricks, he wouldn't do that to Bob Franklin. Hendricks rode Jimba and finished third in the claiming race, run for a $2,500 purse. And if you ever had anything bad to say about Kenny Hendricks, you dare not say it around Bob Franklin or you would suffer his wrath.
I have often mused about who I would interview if I were given 15 minutes with someone from the past, and I've come to the conclusion that I'd pick Robert Joseph Franklin. I can only imagine the things he saw and the stories he could tell about life on the old prairie circuit.
In the end, cancer ravaged his body, but not his spirit. Bob was a fighter and before he took his last breath he made sure his horses were going to be looked after. Hazel Bochinski would see to that!
When Bob passed in May 1990, we lost someone special and very dear to a number of people. If we were to measure the success of his life by the number of people he touched, Bob Franklin had no peers.
Bob's final resting place couldn't be more appropriate. His ashes were harrowed into the sands of our stretch, right where horses have to dig deep to find that little extra to get to the wire first. I like to think Bob's there to help the winners, and to keep the other horses safe!
Bob Franklin needed horse racing, but horse racing needed Bob Franklin.