12/13/2001 12:00AM

Frankel and Ganns making magic


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In the more than 20 years that Ed and Bernice Gann have owned horses with trainer Bobby Frankel, the focal point of their operation has been importing European turf horses, like Pay the Butler and Timboroa, who went from a cut below to a cut above. But the horizon has widened recently, and the view looks awfully good.

In an attempt to make their presence felt in classic races for younger horses, the Ganns have begun buying ready-made dirt horses in the United States. The strategy is the same as the one applied in Europe - find a runner, at a sensible price, with plenty of upside. In the past year, three horses have been purchased on Frankel's recommendation. One turned out to be a bust. But the other two are Labamta Babe and You, both of whom have outstanding chances of winning Grade 1 races this weekend at Hollywood Park.

Labamta Babe, who finished third in the Hollywood Prevue Stakes last time out in his first start for Frankel, runs in Saturday's Hollywood Futurity for 2-year-olds. You, a Grade 1 winner in New York since Frankel took over as her trainer, goes in Sunday's Hollywood Starlet for 2-year-old fillies.

If both are successful, they will increase Frankel's Grade 1 scorecard to 19 victories this year. And they will add to the lengthy list of major victories for the Ganns, who were in Frankel's camp long before the trainer's current major client, Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms, came calling.

The relationship between the Ganns and Frankel spans more than 20 years, with just one brief interruption that was patched within months. They have won such important races as the Atto Mile with Riviera, Brooklyn Handicap and Met Mile with You and I, Eddie Read Handicap with the popular Wickerr, Gamely and Ramona handicaps with Double Wedge, Japan Cup with Pay the Butler, John Henry Handicap with Al Mamoon, Santa Ana Handicap with Gravieres, and Sunset Handicap with Roi Normand. This year's major victories also include the Turf Classic with Timboroa, and the Hollywood Derby with Denon, whom the Ganns own in partnership.

But when the Ganns and Frankel first joined forces, Gann primarily raced claimers.

"Bobby claimed a horse of ours, for a lot less than we had paid," Gann recalled this week. "She won a bunch of races, was bred to Cannonade, and sold for a lot of money. I said, 'That's the kind of trainer I want.' "

"I guess he thought I was smart," Frankel said at his Hollywood Park barn.

The first thing Frankel did was try to upgrade the Ganns' stock. The claimers were phased out, as was buying young, unraced horses at auction. "I had gone to the sales, and bought any number of yearlings and 2-year-olds. I got sour on that," Ed Gann said. "Our success has been buying grass horses in Europe. Bobby moves them up. He's magic. He's just the most fantastic trainer."

According to Frankel, a recent comment from Bernice Gann prompted the idea of buying up-and-coming 2-year-olds in the United States. "We've got to get to the Kentucky Derby," she told Frankel. "I told her the best way was to try to buy horses that have been running," he said.

Both Labamta Babe and You, who began their careers in Kentucky, filled the qualifications Frankel has applied to finding runners in Europe. They have decent, though not dazzling pedigrees, and they began running in maiden-claiming races, so their prices were not as daunting as, say, a well-bred runner who wins against maiden special weight competition first time out. Both horses were found by bloodstock agent Mark Reid, the former trainer. "Labamta Babe is a big, gangly horse who hadn't filled out," Frankel said. "He's filled out a little. He's maturing." Ed Gann said he had an immediate soft spot for You, since she is by You and I, whom the Ganns raced.

The Ganns live in Rancho Santa Fe, the elegant San Diego County community inland from Del Mar. Ed Gann, 78, has been a San Diego-area resident since his family moved from Cape Cod when he was 8. He amassed his fortune in the fishing business. He owned a fleet of tuna boats that at one time numbered 50 vessels, and was a co-owner of the popular brand Chicken of the Sea, which had the catchy slogan, "Ask any mermaid you happen to see, what's the best tuna? Chicken of the Sea." Gann still owns five tuna boats.

Ed Gann said he and his wife currently own about 20 horses, including mares, with no more than 10 runners at the track now with Frankel. He is content with running an operation of that size, concentrating on quality over quantity. "I'd rather have one good horse than five mediocre horses," he said. "That's why I quit claiming horses years ago. We still buy a bad horse now and then. But if we do, we sell him. We're trying to stay in stakes races."