09/04/2009 12:00AM

The man was never the retiring type


DEL MAR, Calif. - The unofficial owner of the Pacific Classic will not be in attendance on Sunday, when the $1 million race is run for the 19th time. But he will have a horse in the hunt, and right now that is significant enough.

Horses trained by Bobby Frankel won six of the first 11 runnings of Del Mar's most important race, including the 1993 version with Eclipse Award champion Bertrando. Frankel has not won the Classic since 2001, when Skimming won his second straight, but it has not been for lack of trying. The deep-closing Milwaukee Brew settled for third in 2002. It took Candy Ride to beat the Frankel horse Medglia d'Oro in 2003. More recently Frankel hit the board with third-place finishers Hello Sunday in 2007 and Mast Track in 2008.

Mast Track, who carries Frankel's zebra-striped colors, is a 5-year-old bay of modest but efficient dimensions. He will be back in the Classic again on Sunday.

It has been a while since Mast Track actually won a race - 14 months and a week, in fact - but his last appearance in the San Diego Handicap was good enough to encourage all concerned.

"I thought he ran very big that day," said Humberto Ascanio, Frankel's California assistant. "But they were right on top of him all the way."

Mast Track led every stride of the 1 1/16-mile San Diego, but the last stride, when he was nailed on the line by Informed. The San Diego can be a key to the 1 1/4-mile Classic, yet this summer it did not contain the top three choices on Sunday - Colonel John, Einstein and Rail Trip, all of them proven at the distance.

There is not much chance Mast Track will be loping along on the lead on Sunday, what with the presence of one-trick Tres Borrachos, the fresh 3-year-old Misremembered, and the athletic Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip, who doesn't exactly dawdle. If for some reason Mast Track can pull off the upset, though, it will provide an extraordinary moment, with emotions aimed north toward L.A., where Frankel has been secluded in his home these last several months while dealing with an illness he has chosen not to disclose.

Frankel turned 68 in July. In his business, this is mid-career when held up alongside such geriatric giants as Charlie Whittingham, Henry Clark, Woody Stephens, and James Fitzsimmons. At 68, Whittingham had yet to train Sunday Silence, Ferdinand, Flawlessly and Perrault. At 68, Stephens had won only the first of his five straight Belmonts. At 68, Fitzsimmons had Gallant Fox and Omaha in the books, but Nashua and Bold Ruler were still to come.

It is reasonable, therefore, to expect Frankel to be a factor at the top of the game for years to come, even though he already has handled 10 champions, won five Eclipse Awards, and has a plaque with his name hanging in the Hall of Fame.

Certainly, nothing that happened in 2008 would argue to the contrary. He had a handsome collection of major stakes winners, led by Vineyard Haven and Ginger Punch, with the season topped off by Ventura's victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.

The body betrays us, though, in grim and unexpected ways. Frankel has been basically training by telephone since last spring, communicating only with assistants on the ground and an inner circle of friends. For company he has his team of Australian shepherds, Ginger and Punch, doting on their ailing master's every whim. Still, Frankel thrives on daily contact with his beloved racehorses. It must be awful to be without them for so long.

John Chandler, president of Juddmonte Farm's North American operation, has been along for the last two decades of Frankel's run at the top of the game. Frankel has handled Juddmonte champions Intercontinental, Ryafan and Wandesta. He has given them four Pacific Classics - two with Skimming and two with Tinners Way - along with scores of major stakes with the likes Chester House, Marquetry, Flute, Sightseek, Aptitude, Empire Maker, Honest Lady, Toussaud, and Mizzen Mast, the sire of Mast Track.

Since Juddmonte is Frankel's primary client, Chandler was asked if the absence of the head man at the racetrack has put a strain on the operation.

"He's got very good help," Chandler said. "The last few years, when he's split his stable between New York and California for most of the season, he was training half of them by telephone at one time or another anyway."

That's good to know, but questions still abound. Chandler was asked if he thought the sport should prepare for a Frankel retirement.

"No. Hell no," Chandler replied. "A couple of months ago I would have said possibly. But he's got a bit of a resurgence now. I'm seeing signs of the old Bobby."

The old Bobby Frankel exhausted the use of words like "brash, arrogant, self-confident and cocky" by racing writers. He's never done anything to discourage the image, although more accurately Frankel should be described as an inveterate outsider and closet romantic who made a distinctive place for himself in the world of horse racing, while finding his best voice as an advocate for those without one, namely the horses and the people of the backstretch.

If Frankel wants to come back to work he will come back, and when he does, it would be best for all of us if he is the same Bobby Frankel of two decades ago who answered the phone when John Chandler called from out of the blue.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Chandler said. "When I asked him, 'Would you like to train some horses for Juddmonte?' Bobby said, 'Eh, call me tomorrow. I'll let you know.' "