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Bobby and Jim
Among the many comments about the death of Bobby Frankel, one reader recollected a column by the syndicated Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Murray, a lifelong racing fan. Hollywood Park used to have a race named for Murray--it was discontinued this year in a cost-saving move--and Frankel won six of its 19 runnings. To suggest that Frankel and Murray were made for each other is an understatement. Here is Murray's column, from March 21, 1993:
Usually, when you think of a horse trainer, you think of a guy in a wool hat and high boots who is a direct descendant of Jesse James or whose grandfather rode with Custer.
He was born in a bunkhouse and grew up on horseback, riding and roping, and he broke his first mustang at 11. He got to know horses better than people because his nearest neighbor growing up was 10 miles away as the crow flies.
But what if you are born in Brooklyn? How about if the only thing you ever rode was a subway train? What if your nearest neighbor was two feet away and you didn't even have a bicycle? What if the only horses hou ever saw were in the movies until you got old enough and then they were on a racetrack?
You would have figured that, to really understand horses, someone in your family had to ride in the Pony Express, not the uptown express.
Horse trainers didn't come from Delancy Street or Flatbush Avenue, they came from south Missouri or west Texas, places where they used horses to rob trains or rustle cattle, where they needed fast animals not to get a silver cup, but to get away.
Bobby Frankel's first horse was not a Shetland or a pinto, it was 8-1. Frankel learned about horses they old-fashioned way--he bet on them. You don't have to know about pasterns and stifles, fetlocks and cannon bones to get the exacta, you only need a clock and a Form.
But you get to know horses as well as anybody who spent years sleeping in a barn with them or circling wagons trains on them. At least Frankel did. He learned that they are like the rest of society, cantankerous, argumentative, stubborn, resistant to advice or learning, perverse, temperamental and sometimes not at all willing to do what's expected of them.
Bobby Frankel didn't get to know all this on his first trip to the track, but it was a start. There's a lot of information about a horse in a past-performance chart that you can't always get in a saddle.
His parents took him to his first races. But they were for trotters, and Bobby was scornful.
"Too easy to handicap," he snorted.
He was only 17, but he didn't want to bet on anything that pulled a wagon for a living. He wanted a challenge.
Thoroughbreds provided it, all right. Frankel would caddie all morning at the Inwood Country Club to get enough money to go out and match wits with the horses in the afternoon. Since horses are not very bright, that should be an overmatch because Frankel is. But he demurs.
"It's not really the horses you have to compete with, it's the other bettors," he says. "Most of them don't have a clue."
Handicapping lost a legend the day Frankel stopped going to the windows. He had no trouble deciphering the hieroglyphics of the Daily Racing Form into information that told him what 10-1 shot should be going off at 6-5.
Of course, horses that should win don't always. But Frankel had his own university education going for him. He didn't need a stock market, he had a tote board.
"I was a kind of a legend at the windows," he says.
One night, a pal of his had to leave a party early. Frankel was intrigued. The festivities were just getting going. The pal explained that he rode a pony at the track, leading post parades, rounding up riderless horses or runaway winners. Frankel decided he wanted to get a look at a way of life that made going home from a great party early preferable and went with his friend the next morning.
That's how Frankel got to the backside. He's been there ever since. Instead of joining guys named "Bet a Million" or "Lucky" or "Big Julie," he hooked up with guys who were known as "Plain Ben" or "Sunny Jim."
"They gave me a badge and my own parking place and I knew I had found a home," he recalls. "I did everything to stay there. I was a hot walker, I rubbed horses. I did everything you do."
Including mucking stalls and going for coffee. But, mostly, he studied horses. He studied trainers.
"It's complicated, but it's not rocketry," Frankel says.
Finally, trainer Johnny Campo told him, "I can get you a trainer's license. You're ready."
And he was. His first horse was a colt called Pink Rose who was to win three races in a row. His first winner was a Finger Lakes horse called Double Dash.
Frankel had six winners out of his first 12 starters. And it wasn't as if he was getting the Vanderbilt and Whitney stock. He got his $10,000 claimers, the riffraff of the track, in-and-outers, plating horses, inconsistent, indifferent. Bobby made runners out of them.
Some claiming horses are put in a race with price tags dangling because they have shown a positive distaste for winning, of not for running at all. They are the ne'er-do-wells of the turf. Claimers sometimes have no heart--to say nothing of no speed. The challenge is to build some zeal, some sense of worth back into them. Frankel did this better than anybody.
"I claimed five in one day once," he boasts. "I won a lot of stakes with ex-claiming horses."
Still, his stock didn't put anybody in mind of Man o' War. And, because his wasn't one of the lordly stables, he began to have trouble getting stalls on the Eastern and Florida circuits.
It turned out to be the best break he ever got. Because it forced him to go west to California. They had stalls for him out here. And Frankel immediately found his niche. He was phenomenally successful. At Hollywood Park, Frankel's starters won 60 races in 75 days.
If there is a gap in Frankel's portfolio, it is in the 3-year-old classic horses. There are no Kentucky Derbies, Preaknesses or Belmonts on his resume. Frankel lives with it.
"I got this reputation for conditioning older horses, and they just didn't send the 2-year-olds to me," he explains.
He doesn't haunt the claim box anymore and has long since gotten out of the category of "King of the Claimers." He is the trainer these days for the stable of the Saudi sheikh Khalid Abdullah, which includes racetrack royalty. He won the Pacific Classic at Del Mar last year and hopes to win a second San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita next month.
All in all, Frankel believes he got a lucky break in life. If he had been born in Wyoming, he might have wanted to sell dresses or cater weddings for a living. Being born in Brooklyn, though, he longed for the wide-open spaces. And he made more money on horses than John Wayne.
Too bad Mr. Murray wasn't around for the 2003 Belmont. He'd be proud. What a loss.
Nice posts, folks. Thanks, Jay.
One of the greatest injustices ever done to horse was to the Frankel trained Flute in 2001. During the year she won the Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama by 4 lengths respectively and ran 2nd in the SA Oaks and the Beldame. On BC/WTC day Exogenous had a freak accident during the BC Distaff post parade and Flute had to stay of the track with Bailey up while everybody else went back to the walking ring and dismounted. She eventually ran 7th and Xtra Heat ran a valiant 2nd in the BC Sprint and was award 3YO Filly of the year supposedly because of her running against the boys and losing in all-out fashion. I believe that Flute was penalized BECAUSE she was trained by Bobby Frankel. The next year Farda Amiga won the Oaks/Alabama, ran 2nd to Azeri in the Distaff and won the award. Go Figure. Eclipse Awards? A Joke.
A nice read. I am always a little suspicious of people who boast of their betting prowess, but I am prepared to give 'achievers' some latitude. Interestingly, one of Britain's best trainers, Barry Hills, also got his start in 1969 from his profits from betting. I always back the Hills' horses when they attract significant money. Jay - can you please elaborate on why Frankel did not get the 3 year old classic horses. Wasn't his winning record out there for all to see? Regards - Bernard
Bernard - In the modern era, there has been a type of trainer who actively solicits likeminded owners for the acquisition of horses who are pointed almost exclusively for some kind of Triple Crown campaign. The most obvious among these have been Wayne Lukas, Woody Stephens, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito. Their reputations lived and died by the spring 3-year-old classics, and they all made it to the Hall of Fame in the process. Then there is a different group of trainers who were not willing to give themselves over entirely to the Triple Crown process, taking a broader view that there was plenty of prize money to be won with more mature animals. This list would be led by Allen Jerkens, Angel Penna, Richard Mandella, Ron McAnally, and Bobby Frankel. Frankel's patrons went along with his philosophy, which made his faith in Empire Maker--his lone classic winner among colts--so memorable.
My recollection is that Bobby Frankel left New York for California during a Spring '72 strike by pari mutual clerks at Aqueduct. The clerks were protesting because of a decline in business resulting from the recent introduction of off track betting in New York. Frankel (and others) became frustrated with the track's closing and, with no place to run his horses in New York, headed for the greener pastures of California. The rest, as they say, is history.
Thanks Jim for this great column about Bobby...been playing the horses for 25 years and never paid much attention to what trainers said (Especially 3yr old hype) until Bobby came along and I paid attention to every word since about 93'...I was sad whn I heard he was ill...and now am sadder with his passing...(PS Note to Crist..why wasn't his passing the HEADLINE...was the "Lights at Churchill" special more important?" Thanks
jtown -- Yes, Murray has several collections of his columns available. They all contain at least a few horse racing subjects.
Jay Great article. Living in western new york its cool to read Frankel 1st horse race victory is at Finger Lakes! Question did Jim Murray Ever publish a book of his columns?
Bobby would have been proud of one son of Empire Maker yesterday. MAKE HISTORY a two year old first time starter for John Terranova came flying in a heart clenching finish to just miss at the wire. One more jump and he wins! A thrilling debut and definitely one to watch.