10/05/2003 11:00PM

Not just a record - a new era

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - What a difference 16 years makes.

In 1987, the top layer of the racing world was ruled by Wayne Lukas, Charlie Whittingham, Jack Van Berg, and Woody Stephens. They won most of the money and most of the major stakes, leaving the scraps to the other 3,000 or so men and women who called themselves Thoroughbred trainers.

The Lukas organization topped them all, with stable franchises in the East, West, and Midwest, flooding stakes races with a relentless flow of fast young horses. But even by the lofty Lukas standards, 1987 was something special. That was the year the stable won 22 of the North American races deemed Grade 1 quality by the Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

The Lukas Grade 1 winners of 1987 had names like North Sider and Tejano, Chic Shirine and Fiesta Gal. Success Express and Sacahuista won Breeders' Cup events. The filly Lost Kitty beat the boys in the Del Mar Futurity. By the end of the year, the Lukas horses had earned $17.5 million, surpassing his old record by more than $5 million.

Bobby Frankel, on the other hand, experienced a 1987 of somewhat lesser notoriety. At the age of 46, six years younger than Lukas, Frankel ended up 10th in the purse standings at $2.9 million. And while Frankel had his share of stakes winners in the barn, only one of them - the turf ace Al Mamoon - managed to win a Grade 1 event.

Ancient history now, especially now that the current version of the Frankel stable has set a new standard for winning races at the very highest level of competition. With Sightseek's victory in the Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park on Saturday, Frankel laid claim to his 23rd Grade 1 race of the 2003 season.

Frankel has set the new mark with 315 starters in 2003. In 1987, Lukas required 1,735 starters to win those 22. In 1987, there were 118 races considered Grade 1. The 2003 schedule offered 101 Grade 1's.

Even more impressive is the fact that Frankel broke the record with almost three months and 16 Grade 1 races yet to be run in the 2003 campaign. Stir in the fact that Frankel rarely dabbles in 2-year-old races, if at all, and the number of targeted Grade 1's is reduced even further. In short, Frankel has won 23 of the 78 Grade 1 races offered to date for 3-year-olds and up.

"I actually thought I was one short a few days before the race, then someone told me I was tied going into the weekend," Frankel said Monday morning from his New York stable. "I really didn't keep track, though. It's hard to keep track."

Give him a break. He's got a lot on his mind right now. Not only is he getting ready to ship his New York monsters West for the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita, he is being subjected to the last-minute whirl of wedding preparations. That's right - Brooklyn Bobby Frankel, a sworn bachelor for more than 30 years, is getting hitched to the accomplished horsewoman Bonita Boniface at her father's Bonita Farm in Maryland this coming Sunday, Oct. 12.

Bonita's father, J. William Boniface, is a Renaissance racing guy - a turf writer, historian, breeder, and owner who trained 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony and a host of other stakes winners. Bonita is the youngest of five Boniface heirs.

"She's very cool," Frankel said, but he sounded strange, very un-Frankel - almost . . . in love? "She keeps me on my toes, that's for sure. Keeps me really interested. And that's the main thing. Anyway, how can I turn her down?"

Okay, enough of the romantic Frankel. Some ideas take getting used to, and this is one of them. Happiness and prosperity to both the bride and the groom. He is 62, if that makes any difference, and Ms. Boniface is 31.

The honeymoon does not need to end right away, but Frankel needs to be back to work in California pretty soon to plot his final approach to the Breeders' Cup, to be run on Oct. 25. He will attack the Cup with several of the runners that helped rack up the stable's record Grade 1 totals this year, among them Sightseek, Wild Spirit, Medaglia d'Oro, Tates Creek, Heat Haze, and Aldebaran.

The others on Frankel's Grade 1 team are the 3-year-olds Empire Maker, Peace Rules, Spoken Fur, and Ghostzapper, the turf filly Megahertz, and the older horse Milwaukee Brew. The talent has been spread far and wide this year, with 13 Grade 1's collected in New York and the rest scattered among New Jersey, Chicago, Kentucky, Florida, and California, where his large stable is run by Humberto Ascanio at Hollywood Park.

"I'm very happy about the record," Frankel said. "Don't get me wrong. But I just don't get that excited about those things. Believe me, I'm more proud of my guys who have helped me.

"I mean, how many times have I been to California in the last five months - two or three times? In California, everything's in place. I see every horse through Humberto's eyes. He's been with me, what, 30 years? I'd say we see things alike by now.

"And in New York, it's a little more difficult, because sometimes the tracks can get messed up with weather, and I need to see the track to know if we should train or not."

While Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, now retired, collected most of the headlines during the season, it was the 4-year-old filly Sightseek and the late-running sprint star Aldebaran who did most of the stable's heavy Grade 1 lifting. Each has won four.

"It's something to see how horses like Sightseek and Aldebaran can go like they have all year long," Frankel said. "But with Sightseek, for instance, I went real easy with her at the end of last year, just because I knew she was in for a long campaign this year. You've got to give them breaks sometime, or really space their races."

The results have been a record that looks safe, at least for a while. Frankel even allowed himself a moment to reflect on what might have been, with a few breaks here and there in such Grade 1 events as the Kentucky Derby, the Travers, and the Spinster.

"I was just thinking," he said, "that I've probably been second in another 10."

But who's counting?