09/13/2017 10:56AM

Hovdey: Once again, O'Brien tries to scale the Frankel summit


The Brits and Irish are starting to get excited about Aidan O’Brien’s steady march toward the record for most Grade 1 stakes wins in a season. They call them Group 1 over there, which is clearly a reference to the class system so deeply rooted in European culture. But never mind.

Group or Grade, the bar is set at 25. That’s the number posted by Bobby Frankel in 2003, and it has stood through 13 years of assault by not only O’Brien but also Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, and more recently Chad Brown. And while 25 of anything does not sound like a lot, this is a record that will make a great deal of noise when broken.

O’Brien won three Group 1 races last weekend in Ireland to bring his total to 17 for the year. There are some two dozen Group 1 races left to run in Ireland, England, France, Germany, and Italy in 2017, plus another ripe batch in North America, topped by the six Breeders’ Cup races contested on grass.

O’Brien will try to add to his Group 1 total on Saturday in the St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster, in which he is likely to have three runners, as well as the Woodbine Mile, where he runs Deauville and Lancaster Bomber. The St. Leger is the known world’s oldest 3-year-old classic, having first been run in 1776. O’Brien, born 193 years later, has won it four times.

The calendar gives O’Brien a shot at the record largely because of his good fortune in late-season 2-year-old races. In stark contrast, Frankel’s 25 Grade 1 prizes did not include a single 2-year-old event.

That’s not the only way in which the two trainers differed. Frankel, who died in 2009 after a heart-wrenching battle with cancer, was a loudmouth New Yorker who did his best to hide a deep and abiding streak of generosity. O’Brien’s safely apolitical sentiments come wrapped in a soft County Wexford brogue that often requires the listener to lean in. The Irishman is a devoted family man who married into a horse-wise clan and has raised a talented second generation of racing O’Briens. Frankel loved his dogs.

If nothing else, O’Brien’s steady accumulation of Group 1 wins this year has inspired a renewed appreciation of the Frankel record. So here goes:

Of his 25 wins, 18 were on dirt and seven on turf (the synthetic era had not yet begun). Eight were won in California, 13 in New York, two in Kentucky, and one each in New Jersey and Illinois. They were won by 14 different horses – eight males and six females – for eight different owners.

Milwaukee Brew gave Frankel his first Grade 1 win of the year when the son of Wild Again took his second straight Santa Anita Handicap. To that point, the only other horse to do that in the history of the track was John Henry.

On the following day, Aldebaran won the San Carlos Handicap, the first step toward an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter, after which Frankel’s 3-year-olds stepped up to win the Florida Derby (Empire Maker), the Blue Grass (Peace Rules), and the Wood Memorial (Empire Maker).

The filly Spoken Fur joined the stable halfway through the year and won the Mother Goose and the CCA Oaks. Peace Rules later added the Haskell Invitational, while Empire Maker gave Frankel his most significant win of the year in the 135th Belmont Stakes, even though most of the rain-soaked crowd was cheering that day for Funny Cide to win the Triple Crown.

Sightseek, owned by Juddmonte Farms, was Frankel’s most productive Grade 1 performer. The 5-year-old daughter of Distant View won the Humana Distaff in May, the Ogden Phipps in June, the Go for Wand in July, and the Beldame in October. Her Juddmonte stablemates Tates Creek (Gamely, Yellow Ribbon) and Heat Haze (Beverly D., Matriarch) held up their end of the barn with Grade 1 grass wins.

Among Frankel’s older males, Aldebaran added the Met Mile and the Forego, Denon took the Manhattan, Medaglia d’Oro won the Whitney, and Ghostzapper tipped his mitt for 2004 with a 6 1/2-length win in the Vosburgh. Tiny Megahertz won a thriller in the John C. Mabee at Del Mar, with Tates Creek a half-length behind in a triple dead heat for second. Frankel also ran one-two in the Ruffian with Wild Spirit and You.

Sightseek’s Beldame marked Grade 1 number 23, which broke the record set by Wayne Lukas in 1987. One week later, Frankel married Bonita Boniface, which was not a bad way to celebrate.

Frankel was shut out in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park, where his only consolation was a second in the Classic with Medaglia d’Oro. Let the record show that Frankel horses finished second in a dozen other 2003 Grade 1 events, three of those by two noses and a head.

Well into November the Frankel touch was still gold. When Epicentre finished first in the Hollywood Turf Cup but was disqualified for interference, Continuously was elevated to the win. Bobby trained them both.

Frankel spent most of the 2003 season in New York, where he was ably assisted by Jose Cuevas and Ruben Loza. In California, the Frankel interests were tended by Humberto Ascanio, Bobby’s Mexican alter-ego, and rock-solid Sally Lundy. The head man thanked them all the following January while accepting his fourth straight Eclipse Award.