08/19/2001 11:00PM

Assistant takes a turn in spotlight


DEL MAR, Calif. - Humberto Ascanio was trying to describe how it felt to be first mate aboard the fastest ship on the ocean, laden with silver and gold.

"It's a feeling of confidence, like every horse in every stall can do whatever you think they can do," he said. "It doesn't happen all the time. There's no way it can happen every day. But when it does, like it's happening now, it's the best feeling in the world."

Ascanio had a right to rhapsodize. He had just ushered Skimming into the Del Mar winner's circle after his 5 1/2-length victory in the $1 million Pacific Classic, putting the icing on Bobby Frankel's dream weekend. The Frankel stable also won the Alabama Stakes with Flute, the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap with Aptitude and finished second in the Beverly D. with The Seven Seas.

Ascanio has been working for Frankel since 1973, the year Brooklyn Bobby decided that California needed the attention more than New York. Frankel was right, especially at Del Mar, where his horses have helped him win five training titles, nearly 300 races, and an incredible six of the 11 runnings of the Pacific Classic. Frankel was on the scene for the first five, but not this time. While the boss stayed in Saratoga to supervise Flute and Aptitude, Ascanio put the finishing touches on Skimming, flew to Chicago to saddle Senure in the Arlington Million and The Seven Seas in the Beverly D. on Saturday, then hitched a ride on a private jet to be home in time for the Pacific Classic.

As a reward for his hard work and loyalty - and also because Frankel doesn't like to waste the rent - Ascanio also got the keys to Frankel's room at the nearby Four Seasons Resort while Bobby was out of town. Ascanio confessed that five-star accommodations are about three stars more than the typical assistant trainer can expect, but that working for Frankel can sometimes come with such unanticipated perks.

"It's so quiet," Ascanio said of his temporary summer place. "I've never slept better anywhere in my life."

It was a little piece of paradise for Maureen Ascanio as well. Her idea of a Pacific Classic celebration was some world-class room service with her husband. As she watched Humberto on center stage at the post-race press conference, she could barely hide her pride as he held forth about Skimming and the race.

"When you have a free-running horse like this, you should let him roll" - bam went Ascanio's hand on the table top, right next to the microphone. "That's what Bobby said this morning on the phone, and that's what I told the rider." Bam!

"I wish he'd stop banging the table," Maureen whispered. "He's very excited."

Humberto was not alone. All four Ascanio children were at the races, plus a couple of grandchildren and assorted friends and relatives. They had come to see Humberto in the spotlight for a change, taking the bows and passing around he credit. He will never take any for himself.

"No, no," Ascanio will say. "Bobby is the man. He makes things happen."

There is no real secret to Frankel's success. He hires and keeps some of the best people on the backstretch, then lets Ascanio run the shed row - or when out of town, the whole show. Their collaboration over the decades has resulted in four champions, an Eclipse Award, and a plaque in the Hall of Fame with "Robert Frankel" inscribed.

As a result, the 54-year-old native of Mexico has earned a reputation as the best-known number two man on the Southern California backstretch. In such situations, the temptation to flee the nest must be strong. Eduardo Inda seemed permanently attached to Ron McAnally, but eventually he went on his own. Simon Bray was in a good spot for as long as he wanted at Bill Mott's side, then opportunity called. And who could blame Eoin Harty for cashing in on his exposure as Bob Baffert's alter-ego when Sheikh Mohammed beckoned?

"Look, Bobby has been good to me for a long time," Ascanio said. "How could I go someplace else when I can work with horses like this?"

Ascanio has the perfect temperament to handle life with Bobby. They share an edgy sense of humor, as well as a passion for the tiniest details of training and caring for their animals. Ascanio also has ample help at home from Maureen.

The Ascanios met 31 years ago when they both worked for Farrell Jones. She was a hotwalker and he was a groom. After they were married a year later, she left the track and he went to work for Gary Jones, and then Buster Millerick, before signing on with Frankel. You won't find a better pedigree. "They were all good horsemen," Ascanio noted. "Not just trainers with condition books, but good with the horses. Buster was tough. He worked me very hard. I learned a lot."

Midway through the press conference, Ascanio excused himself to saddle a horse in the seventh. When someone suggested that he let his assistant do the chores, he cracked, "I can't. He's in Saratoga."

Ascanio startled himself. Even at such a giddy moment, his respect for Frankel could not be so glibly disguised. "It's a joke, a joke! Okay?" he said, even though people were already laughing. "Please tell Bobby it was a joke."

Don't worry, Humberto. After 28 years, the job is yours. No one does it better.