07/06/2009 12:00AM

Illness keeps Frankel home in California

Barbara D. Livingston
Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, shown patting Ginger Punch last summer, has not been to the track in recent weeks but has been in contact with his assistant, Humberto Ascanio.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel is battling an undisclosed illness at his Los Angeles area home, according to several people close to him, and has stayed away from the racetrack in recent weeks, leading to widespread concern among his friends and colleagues in the sport about his long-term health.

Frankel, who turns 68 on Thursday, remains in daily contact with his longtime assistant trainer, Humberto Ascanio, on the stable's affairs, Ascanio said on Saturday. But some trainers and jockey agents who have tried to contact Frankel in recent weeks to wish him well or discuss racing business said in the last week they have not spoken to him.

His prolonged absence has triggered a rash of backstretch rumors about his condition. Normally, Frankel would spend the summer in New York, making only occasional trips to California for major races, if it all. This summer, he has been at home in Pacific Palisades, according to Ascanio.

Ascanio declined to describe Frankel's illness, but said that the trainer "sounds better" in recent days.

"I don't miss one day of talking to him," Ascanio said. "I hear a lot of rumors and I can't comment. It's his private life.

"I talk business and that's it. He's a fighter. He doesn't want any sympathy."

Frankel has even dispersed some horses to other trainers in Southern California, according to Ascanio.

Frankel could not be reached on Sunday.

One of the most successful trainers in American racing, Frankel has had a major presence throughout the nation in the last two decades. He has won 26 races worth $1 million or more, including six Breeders' Cup races and the 2003 Belmont Stakes with Empire Maker.

Frankel has trained 10 national champions, including 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, and has won 30 training titles in Southern California and New York. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995, Frankel has won five Eclipse Awards as the nation's outstanding trainer, most recently in 2003.

But it is Frankel the person, as much as the trainer, that has made him a popular figure in racing. A native of Brooklyn, Frankel is known for a quick wit, a fiery temper, and a sense of humor. But he is a man with a well-known soft spot for his horses, particularly fillies, as well as his pet dogs.

Frankel's absence from the day-to-day operations at the track comes at a time when his stable is having an uncharacteristically poor meeting at Hollywood Park. Through Sunday, Frankel had just one victory from 33 starters, Midships in the Grade 1 Charles Whittingham Handicap on June 6. In Sunday's sixth race, the Frankel-trained Skimmetry lost by a nose after leading for a one-mile turf race.

"We've been unlucky in a few races," Ascanio said. "It's been pretty rough. Hopefully, it will change."