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Frankel's racing family struggles on its own
Humberto Ascanio held his 2-year-old grandson, Jonathan, in his arms and looked down into the freshly dug grave, where the coffin containing the earthly remains of Robert Francis Frankel had been lowered a few moments before. Scattered bits of their 36 years together lurched through Ascanio's thoughts until he settled on the only decent emotion of the moment, there on that sun-drenched November afternoon -- sadness for the loss of his friend, and for the pain his friend had suffered.
Ascanio was not alone. The death of Bobby Frankel at age 68 on Nov. 16, 2009, after ailing for most of the year, was a watershed for the Thoroughbred business, with ripples still washing up on distant shores. The immediate impact was a loss of high-quality training operations in California and New York, where Frankel did most of his business. The owners who were with the Frankel team to the end -- long after Bobby was bed-ridden in his Pacific Palisades home -- scattered in various directions.
It was Frankel's training family, however, who lost the most, and not only in terms of gainful employment. The core of the team -- Ascanio and fellow assistants Jose Cuevas, Sally Lundy, and Ruben Loza -- were suddenly exposed to the elements of a racing world from which they had been sheltered by the protection of the Frankel brand. Even though they are among the best at what they do, during the past year they have found out what life is like without Bobby.
"I've been very lucky to have worked for some great trainers," said Sally Lundy, who shuttled back and forth between both coasts for Frankel. "Working for Bobby, with the horses he had, sometimes didn't feel like work at all."
"Bobby Frankel was a very nice person, and very good to work for," said Cuevas, who was Frankel's right-hand man in New York, both in the saddle and on the ground. "Now I know how much he was paying for me, too. He used to pay for my rent, pay for my car, pay for my phone, plus a good salary on top of that.
"He had an image he had to keep up, sure, the tough guy from Brooklyn," Cuevas noted. "But he helped an awful lot of people. He just didn't want anyone to know about it. Not long before he passed away, he took time to send me a trophy. It was sculpture of me galloping You."
You was one of the fabulous Frankel fillies who populated his stable throughout his career, among them Sweet Diane, Flute, Ginger Punch, Possibly Perfect, Heat Haze, Honest Lady and her dam, Toussaud. They were accompanied by a long list of hard-nosed colts, led by Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and such solid citizens as Tinners Way, Marquetry, Milwaukee Brew, Empire Maker, Aldebaran, and Leroidesanimeaux.
Frankel's success with such horses over a career of more than 40 years allowed him to bequeath sums to a number of his employees, while Ascanio, who ran Frankel's California operation, took pains to find jobs for those who had to be let go in the wake of Frankel's death.
"Bobby wanted to make sure that would happen, and that the people got what I guess you would call bonuses," Ascanio said.
Still, the inheritance could not last forever, and Frankel's talented inner circle knew only one way to behave around the racetrack, and that was to work.
Loza, a broad-shouldered bull of a man who ran the Frankel shed row in New York, landed a job with John Shirreffs back in California.
Cuevas kept his hand in over the summer prospecting claims for the David Jacobson outfit at Saratoga, and Lundy had a brief stint for Paco Gonzalez before going to work training a string for trainer Janet Armstrong and the Budget Stable. That job ended in October.
"Bobby gave me enough so that I don't have to worry for a bit," Lundy said. "I figured I worked a lot of years without a break. I'm entitled to draw unemployment for a little while. I've always got things on the back burner because I never had time to do them. Maybe I'll get into another part of racing, away from that seven-days-a-week grind. When you're not doing it for Bobby Frankel you definitely don't get the same satisfaction."
Cuevas is in Miami, getting ready to go to work for the Flying Zee Stable of Carl Lizza, who primarily uses trainer Carlos Martin.
"I feel very strong," said Cuevas, who just turned 60. "I've been walking 4 1/2 miles every day to get in shape. When I walk I think a lot about Bobby. There's not a day that goes by when I don't think about him. And do you know, there are some people who still ask me, 'Was he a good trainer? Did he ever go in a stall?' That kind of thing just makes me mad to hear it."
Frankel was a good trainer, and he did go in the stalls, especially when problems arose. He prided himself on early detection of physical changes, a philosophy that permeated his operation.
As for Frankel's record, there is no need to dwell, unless one is moved to take a fine painting off the wall every once in a while and examine it in different light.
Only the amount of money accumulated by the horses in the widespread Wayne Lukas operation has topped Frankel on the all-time list. Unlike Lukas, along with most of their contemporaries, Frankel maintained a spot at or near the top of the table through three incarnations -- first as a hotshot claiming trainer, then with a broad spectrum of talent provided by an eclectic mix of owners, and finally as an essentially private practitioner for the world's most successful breeding operation, Juddmonte Farms.
During the first decade of the 21st century, Frankel's runners accumulated more than $131 million. The stables of Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen banked more -- no surprise there -- but a different look at the numbers offers a more revealing spin on the story. By average, each of Frankel's starters brought back a check of $28,323, topping the average Pletcher starter by more than $10,000 and the average Asmussen starter by more than $20,000.
The Frankel crew was always in for the long haul, with good horses ready at each turn of the calendar page. It was during the autumn at Hollywood Park, however, when Frankel runners ruled the stage at what has most recently been billed as the Turf Festival, offered over the Thanksgiving weekend.
There have been several major stakes in the Turf Festival rotation through the years, but the three that have stood the test of time are the Citation Handicap, the Hollywood Derby, and the Matriarch. Frankel won 13 of those, including eight Matriarchs with such champions and marquee animals as Wandesta, Ryafan, Starine, and Intercontinental.
However, the most memorable of those Turf Festival triumphs occurred in the immediate wake of Frankel's death last year, when Ventura won the Matriarch and Fluke won the Citation, both running in the name of Humberto Ascanio. If there was a dry eye in the house, no one noticed.
Ascanio will try to win the Citation again this year, this time with the reliable old campaigner Proudinsky. A victory would sweeten a grim season during which horses running in Ascanio's name have made just 35 starts through Monday without a win to their name. Among Ascanio's 15 seconds and thirds was Fluke's narrow loss to Proviso in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita last winter. Ascanio continues to train out of the Frankel barn at Hollywood Park -- formerly occupied by Charlie Whittingham -- but with only 18 head he must share the 60-stall facility with other trainers, something Frankel was spared.
As Frankel's longest-serving assistant and alter-ego, the rock-solid Ascanio inherited not only a generous gift from his late boss, but also an expectation that he would carry on the Frankel stable in some form. The realities of modern racing encroached, however, accompanied by a lifetime spent in the role of being the man behind the man.
"I never went looking for horses," Ascanio said. "That was what Bobby did. They just showed up, and we took it from there."
Ascanio went to work for Frankel in 1973, a young man out of Guadalajara, Mexico, and primary breadwinner for his fatherless family. He learned early that he had to cope with the mercurial side of Frankel or find another job.
"Ooh, he was something else," Ascanio said. "Even later on, when he got more mellow, you never knew which Bobby would be calling you."
Ascanio spoke with Frankel frequently through the long months of 2009 when the trainer had to absent himself from the day-to-day running of his barns, occupied as he was with radiation treatments and chemotherapy. Ascanio recalls that the last time he actually saw Frankel was during the spring of '09, when the effects of dealing with his cancer were taking hold.
"He was a very proud guy, and I know he didn't want to be seen the way he was, getting so sick," Ascanio said. "When we talked, I could hear his voice getting weaker and weaker. The last time we talked he wanted to know how Ventura was doing. He thought she should have won her race in the Breeders' Cup" -- she finished second to Informed Decision in the '09 Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita -- "and he wanted her to go out a winner. So he told me if she was okay, run her in the Matriarch."
She did, and won by 1 3/4 lengths, defeating Tuscan Evening and Diamondrella.
"I remember when he first got sick, and how I worried about what I was going to do," Ascanio said. "But then I thought, I'm not going to jump out of the boat now. I mean, he was fighting and fighting, but he was dying. Dying! I had to stick with him and help him, stay with him as long as he needed. He'd been good to me. He was my friend."
The sentiment runs through Frankel's racing family.
"Yeah, I think about him a lot," Lundy said. "Over the summer I took some flowers over to Hillside Memorial to visit his grave. But it was a Saturday, and I didn't realize it would be closed. I'll be going back."
Hillside Memorial Park, located in West Los Angeles, is a Jewish cemetery that observes the Sabbath. Last week -- it was a Tuesday − Ascanio gathered his clan for a visit to Frankel's gravesite, on the first anniversary of his death.
"The grandkids and everybody, to spend a little time and to put some flowers on his grave," Ascanio said. "All I could say was − I miss him."