01/01/2004 12:00AM

John Franks, 4-time Eclipse owner, dies

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John Franks, a five-time Eclipse Award winner who owned one of the largest racing and breeding operations in North America, died of heart complications at Willis-Knighton Hospital in Shreveport, La., on Wednesday night. He was 78.

Franks, a self-made oil magnate, was a pillar not only in his home town of Shreveport, but also in racing, where he is the only person to win four Eclipse Awards as outstanding owner. He picked up his fifth Eclipse Award in 1998 when his homebred Answer Lively won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was voted champion 2-year-old colt.

Franks was born in Haughton, La., and after serving in the Air Force during World War II attended Louisiana State University on a track scholarship. After graduating in 1949, he put his geology degree to use and founded Franks Petroleum in Shreveport in 1957.

He became involved in racing in 1980, when he purchased a broodmare. "I really got into it just as a hobby," Franks said in a 2001 interview with Daily Racing Form. "But when Alta's Lady became a multiple stakes producer, that was the start of it all. I became really interested."

Franks's racing empire grew substantially over the next decade, and at the time of his death, he had more than 500 horses, with 120 of them racing with a variety of trainers throughout North America.

Franks was North America's leading owner of the year by wins six times (1983-84, 1986-1989) and by earnings five times (1983-84, 1986, 1993-94). He was the leading breeder by wins nine times (1988-1996) and by earnings once (1993).

In 2003, Franks ranked as North America's fourth-leading owner in wins with 143, and was the seventh-leading owner in earnings with $4,077,950. As a breeder, he ranked second in wins, earnings, and stakes victories.

"We sure did have a good run," said Bobby Barnett, who trained some of Franks's top horses, including Answer Lively.

Barnett began working for Franks about 16 years ago, when the two became acquainted at Louisiana Downs. The men had opposing turf horses at the time, and traded barbs in the paddock each time their horses would meet. A relationship grew from there, said Barnett.

"I got a call one day and he asked me to train some horses, so I picked up three head for him," said Barnett. "The first horse I ran for him ran last and I was sweating, figuring I might lose the horses that I had, but I called him and he said 'It will just get better from here.' "

They were prophetic words. In addition to Answer Lively, Barnett trained Grade 1 winners Halo America and Precocity for Franks, as well as such stakes winners as Littlebitlively and Parisian Flight.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, northern California's leading trainer, also had a longtime relationship with Franks.

"He was just one of the finest gentlemen I've ever known, not only as a boss, but also as a friend," said Hollendorfer. "He was a very straightforward man."

Barbara Doughty, like Barnett and Hollendorfer, also enjoyed a long association with Franks. She has worked as his office manager for more than 20 years.

"A vast amount of people who worked for him worked for him forever," said Doughty. "He affected a lot of lives. He was such a philanthropist. He was such a gentleman - a kind-hearted person."

Dianne Alexander has worked as director of racing for Franks since 1990.

"His life could be summed up by the fact that he was a very successful oilman, a very successful businessman, and a very successful horseman, but I think he will most be remembered for being a very successful man," said Alexander. "He was a very good man."

Franks quietly was a major supporter of the Shreveport community. He founded a school there, among other projects, and his family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to either Trinity Heights Baptist Church, University Christian Prep, or Live Oak Retirement Community, all located in Shreveport.

A funeral service for Franks is set for 2 p.m. Central on Saturday, at Trinity Heights Baptist Church. He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Alta; daughters Karen and Jeanne; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.