09/07/2010 5:57PM

Frankie Brothers gone from track, but not from horses


Frankie Brothers was resigned to a quiet retirement when he decided to leave the racetrack after nearly 40 years of hard work. But a couple of things came up, and here he is, still involved in racing. And happily so.

“You’re talking about a guy who’s semi-retired, I guess,” Brothers said. “The things I’m doing, I’m staying involved in the game just enough. It’s a game that I love although I did have enough of the training.”

After branching away from his mentor, Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg, in the late 1970s, Brothers became one of the more accomplished trainers of his generation, earning titles from Louisiana Downs to Fair Grounds to Keeneland while conditioning classic horses like Hansel and Pulpit. But the daily grind started to overwhelm him and while stabled at Gulfstream Park in March 2009, he abruptly announced his retirement. Brothers, a 63-year-old New Orleans native, lives in Louisville with his wife, Donna Barton Brothers, the retired jockey who works primarily as a racing commentator for NBC Sports.

“I had a wonderful career, trained wonderful horses for wonderful people,” Brothers said, “I just thought it was time to move on. Getting up seven days a week at 4 a.m. for 39 years can be tough on a guy, and tough on a marriage, too. It was time for something else.”

When Jack Wolf heard that Brothers was retiring, he picked up the phone and asked him to keep his hand in the game by helping to pick out yearlings for the Starlight Racing partnership that Wolf heads with longtime partner Don Lucarelli. It was just the type of work that Brothers thought he would enjoy.

“We came to terms with Frankie pretty quick, and it’s just been fantastic,” Wolf said.

The first crop of horses that Brothers selected for Starlight are now 2-year-olds, a group of 11 that includes Position Limit, a five-length winner of the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes on Aug. 15 at Saratoga. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Position Limit was bought for $55,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Sales in July 2009.

“I know Todd trains her, but that day it felt like I was back training again and I was running her,” said Brothers. “It was very exciting. She’s a really nice filly, and we thought she’d be live in that stake. When she was a yearling, she was big and strapping, very correct, very good looking. She looked like a 2-year-old.”

Besides his work for Starlight, Brothers was hired last March to replace retired veterinarian Gary Lavin on the six-person yearling inspection team for Keeneland, where Geoffrey Russell, director of sales, and Tom Thornbury, the associate director, are also key team members.

In the months leading up to the sales, the team goes to local farms to look at yearlings while taking into consideration a number of variables, notably pedigree and conformation, while giving their individual opinions on how the horses should be catalogued. Typically, a Book 1 horse at the Keeneland September yearling sale will bring considerably higher bids than those in later catalogs, and the inspection team attempts to put the horses into a logical order.

“We split up into two groups of three, go see horses all day, then come back and go over every horse,” Brothers said. “You put your rating in, and then you basically take the average of the three of us, although obviously in some cases you’re going to have some differences of opinion. Then Geoff and Tom put it all together before making the final decisions about which horses get slotted where.”

Brothers said that he enjoys working for Keeneland and that “it also gives me a leg up” on his work for Starlight. “I basically only see half the horses because of the way we’re split up, but that’s a pretty good head start,” he said.

Keeneland was aware of his work for Starlight when it hired Brothers, who built a reputation for honesty and integrity during a racing career that dates to 1970, and the possibility of a conflict of interest has not been a serious issue. Keeneland was more interested in the expertise Brothers brings to the inspection team. In a statement when Brothers was hired, Russell said that Brothers “is widely recognized and respected for his keen horsemanship, and his exceptional ability to evaluate young stock.”

Wolf said he spoke to Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm shortly after Starlight hired Brothers. Claiborne probably was the most prominent client for whom Brothers trained, with Pulpit and Arch among its standouts during the trainer’s tenure with the farm, from 1996 to 2001.

“Seth stopped me one day at the sales and said Frankie was probably the best he’d ever seen at selecting yearlings,” said Wolf. “I thought that was saying a lot.”

Brothers was known in his racetrack years as quiet and understated. Interviews with the press were done willingly, although certainly not gleefully – “If I didn’t have a good horse to make y’all come around, you’d be throwing rocks at me,” he liked to joke – and his overall demeanor tended to be businesslike and humorless.

For an insider like Wolf, however, all that matters now is that getting Brothers on his team portends more great things for Starlight, which has raced numerous major winners over the last decade, including Harlan’s Holiday, Ashado, Purge, Octave, Monba, and Take the Points. Wolf said he is hopeful that “maybe three or four” of the 11 2-year-olds that Brothers selected as yearlings in 2009 “will become good horses” and that Starlight likely will be buying “six or seven” yearlings at the Keeneland September sale to add to the five already purchased at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky in July and Fasig-Tipton Saratoga earlier this month.

In the meantime, Brothers is adapting to his new lifestyle.

“This is a busy time of year for me, obviously because of the September sales coming up,” he said. “But there are other times that are much quieter, and that gives me an opportunity to take some trips with my wife and enjoy some other things outside the racetrack gates.

“Both the Starlight and Keeneland positions are nice part-time deals. When I decided to retire, I didn’t know these things would come about, but it’s all kind of come together real well. I’m getting to enjoy the best of both worlds.”