11/16/2009 12:00AM

No choice but to rise to the top


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Bobby Frankel died Monday still owing me a night's sleep.

I mention this only because Frankel was a man who tended to settle his debts, balance the books, and move along to the next race on the card. But there was that time, heading to the 1998 Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs, when he kept me awake for the whole four hours of the L.A.-to-Cincinnati redeye, chattering in the seat next to me about the races, the movies, books, restaurants, current events, and the people we had in common, though from vastly different angles.

At one point the stewardess said, "Shhh. People are trying to sleep." She had no idea.

We landed, and then it was, "Forget about your car. You're driving with me." So that went well, too, and the conversation continued unchecked until we realized somebody missed the turnoff and we were apparently heading to Louisville by way of Lexington, or West Virginia. But who hasn't done that? Rather than point fingers, Frankel took the responsibility, I took the blame, and we enjoyed an extra hundred miles or so of verdant Kentucky countryside.

Anyway, he felt right at home. The city boy in Frankel always breathed easier when he could look out over a field of Thoroughbreds doing more or less what nature intended them to do, which is eat grass and make little Thoroughbreds, along with the occasional frolic. If pinned down, Bobby was never entirely comfortable with what racing asked of its equine athletes. This, more than anything else, prompted his evolution from a peerless claiming hustler to a meticulous handler of rare equine jewels.

"In claiming, you've got egos involved," he told me in a 1995 interview. "I knew how that was. And the horses were the alter ego. People weren't thinking of them as animals who feel pain. I'd see guys lose a horse and clapping because somebody else got stuck with a bad horse, or a horse breaks his leg and somebody claims him, and they're giving each other high fives. That's the worst. I didn't feel like being part of that any more."

He was never really meant to be part of the claiming world in the first place, even though the young Frankel was a horseplayer, and a whiz, aided and abetted by inherent talent. He always described his mother, Gertrude, as a "real good handicapper," although his father, Melvin, "couldn't pick his nose."

His first mentor was Johnny Campo, assistant to Hall of Famer Eddie Neloy at the time, when their barn went from Gun Bow to Bold Lad and Buckpasser without missing a beat. Frankel bought his first horse from Allen Jerkens, and claimed his first stakes winner from MacKenzie Miller. Then, after spending the 1970s in California watching how Charlie Whittingham ran the table with a stable full of stakes horses, Bobby knew how it needed to be done.

"It's a whole different game going from training claimers to stakes horses," Frankel once said. "The good horses you have to live with and learn to like. They take more time, and you have to have the patience."

Frankel acquired like-minded clients, and with them ascended to the Hall of Fame in 1995. At that point in his career, he had yet to win a Breeders' Cup event or a Triple Crown race, or even a Santa Anita Handicap, an Arlington Million or a Jockey Club Gold Cup.

"Maybe I don't belong," he told me at the time. "I've got to win a Derby and two or three Breeders' Cup races. Then I'll be all right. I've got more respect for a guy like Billy Mott than I do myself."

Frankel had to settle for a Belmont Stakes and six Breeders' Cups, but in the end, it was not the races that mattered as much as the horses who won them, or at least tried hard to win them.

"Money is paper," he said. "We're talking about horseflesh now. Live animals that go out every day and run their heart out. And you've got to do everything you can for that individual in all good conscience."

It has been a quiet six months at the track without Frankel holding forth, on any subject, at the drop of a hat. At home with his illness, a handful of close friends, and his Australian shepherds, Ginger and Punch, Bobby rode it out to the end, fighting hard when he could, relenting when there was no choice. He died in the house of his dreams, not far from the blue Pacific.

"Bonita was there with him, so much of the time," said Frank Lyons, a friend and former trainer. He was talking about Bonita Boniface Frankel, whose brief marriage to Bobby ended in 2006, but not their friendship.

"One night she thought he'd stopped breathing," Lyons went on. "She didn't want to panic, but when she checked him again it was the same. Just as she was rushing to the telephone to call 911, she heard from the darkness, 'Hey, Bonita. Bring me that Saratoga condition book.' "

There are a few everlasting images that we decide upon to remember the iconic personalities. For Whittingham, it will be the sight of him baring his flat belly at a racetrack bar and daring a guy to punch him in the gut. For Jerkens, thankfully still among us, it will be an early evening cruise across Saratoga Lake, him doing his Ed Norton impression from "The Honeymooners," with nary a horse in sight.

Frankel, just 68, could have lived another 30 years, winning whatever he wanted to, saying whatever came into his mind, and still for me he would always be the Bobby I saw walking aimlessly through the Santa Anita Park paddock gardens late on the afternoon of March 18, 1984.

His fine filly Sweet Diane had just been killed on the first turn of the Santa Ana Handicap. She had fallen over High Haven, who broke her leg, and in falling Sweet Diane snapped her neck. Like that, she was gone. For occasions of random horror there can be no consolation. Frankel, tough guy, was walking alone, weeping like a child. After that, everything about him made sense.