09/23/2001 11:00PM

Frankel operation deep in riches

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Ready or not, big-time racing returns to Southern California on Wednesday with the first of 32 programs at Santa Anita Park under the banner of the Oak Tree Racing Association.

Oak Tree, it should be noted, is the home of the Yellow Ribbon Invitational, the rich grass race for fillies and mares that was inaugurated in 1977 and named in the spirit of the popular song that triggers images of American soldiers fighting far from home, whether or not you are a fan of Tony Orlando and/or Dawn.

There are certain to be yellow ribbons flying on Wednesday, as well as marching bands and mounted police and all the rest of the patriotic filigree now required for the presentation of American games of sport and chance. At one point, Santa Anita's jockeys will align themselves before the crowd, wearing the red, white and blue silks usually reserved for their annual competition against riders from the European Union.

Someone will sing "God Bless America."

And yet, this will be racing with a sigh and a heavy heart. Even the insulated universe of the racetrack cracks wide open in times like these. The world of the Thoroughbred is vast - with its ultimate roots in the Middle East - but all roads lead at one time or another through New York. And when New York suffers, the rest of the business flinches in pain.

Bobby Frankel, a New Yorker by birth and Californian by choice, was sitting at a nearly deserted JFK International Airport early Monday afternoon, waiting with a few other people to board a flight back to Los Angeles. During his extended East Coast summer campaign, he won major stakes with Flute, Lido Palace, Aptitude, You, Squirtle Squirt, and Starine, in the process

elevating the form of West Coast runners to new heights.

In any other game, he would be hailed upon his return as a conquering hero.

But Frankel can do without the ticker tape. He was coming home only for a few days, and only because his 12-year-old and his 2-year-old were badly in need of attention. They melt his heart, these two. Anyone who thinks that Frankel is nothing but a tough guy with attitude has never seen him in playful communion with Tasha and Happy, his purebred Australian shepherds.

"Believe me, I wouldn't be getting on an airplane if it wasn't for the dogs," Frankel said.

"Both of them will go nuts when they see me. I'm all they've known since they were seven weeks old. Happy, the 2-year-old, she's wild. She looks just like Tasha."

Once he has recovered from the reunion, Frankel will turn his attention to his California stable of considerably larger animals. He has got Pacific Classic winner Skimming on simmer, waiting to meet Tiznow in the Goodwood Handicap on Oct. 7, and a variety of grass horses aiming for both the Yellow Ribbon Invitational this Saturday and the Clement Hirsch Memorial on Sunday.

But first, he would like to see Serenita bounce back to her old fast self on opening day in the $100,000 Ken Maddy Handicap at

6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course.

An Argentine daughter of Southern Halo, Serenita came out smoking last November in her North American debut, winning a

5 1/2-furlong race on the Hollywood Park grass.

Serenita followed that with near-misses to Spain and Nany's Sweep in seven-furlong stakes company, efforts good enough to earn her a ticket to the exotic Golden Shaheen in Dubai.

"She got banged around leaving the gate down there," Frankel said of the Dubai event.

"She came out of it with a little hip problem and didn't come back as good as the two other horses I took, Aptitude and Lido Palace."

After returning from the Middle East, Serenita's fellow travelers jumped right into action. Aptitude won the Hollywood Gold Cup on the disqualification of Futural, then took the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap to put him on course for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Lido Palace was second in the Suburban Handicap, then won the Whitney and the Woodward. He'll be back on the road soon to Tokyo, where he is likely to run in the Japan Cup Dirt in November.

Serenita did not reappear until July 23 at Del Mar. She was fourth in the Fantastic Girl Handicap on the dirt, well beaten and hardly the same filly who was so impressive during the winter. Frankel said not to worry.

"It wasn't the Dubai trip," he said. "She bled a little at Del Mar, but she's okay now. And the only two races she's run on the grass, she's won them both."

Frankel can be forgiven his optimism. Over the past five months, his runners have done little wrong. Beginning about the time Flute dusted Fleet Renee in the Kentucky Oaks, Frankel's Hollywood Park-based stable has been earning money at a dizzy pace. Even runaway national leader Bob Baffert is

starting to feel Frankel's hot breath upon his neck.

On April 30, Baffert's total was $7.5 million, compared to Frankel's sleepy $1.6 million. Since then, Frankel has outgunned Baffert - $8 million to $6.7 million. Even more significantly, Frankel's success has been democratic, with strength in nearly every stall. He has only one horse, Skimming, in the national earnings Top 10. Baffert's numbers, on the other

hand, are dominated by just two horses - Point Given and Captain Steve - who have earned more than half his current stable total. And both of them are out of action.

Little wonder, then, that Frankel is anxious to get on with the Breeders' Cup. If he fails finally to win one this year, perhaps it just isn't meant to be

"I wish the races were in two weeks, instead of the preps," he said. "Right now, it seems like all the horses are perfect."

Frankel, being a reasonable guy, does not ask for more.