08/30/2005 11:00PM

Right-hand man on Western front

"If there's any problems, I let him know. You've got to get the bad news out." - Humberto Ascanio, assistant trainer to Bobby Frankel

DEL MAR, Calif. - This will be a big weekend for the Bobby Frankel barn at Del Mar. So big that Frankel says he might actually show up. Not that his presence is needed. It hasn't been for months.

For the past several years, the time Frankel has spent in Kentucky and then New York, from April through October, has increased dramatically, to the point where he is away from California for nearly six straight months. Yet the runners he leaves in California continue to perform at a high level. They will be front and center in Grade 2 grass stakes races this holiday weekend at Del Mar, with Intercontinental in the $200,000 Palomar Breeders' Cup Handicap on Saturday, Three Valleys in the $350,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sunday, and High Limit in the $400,000 Del Mar Derby on Monday.

Frankel is able to maintain divisions on both coasts half the year because of his complete faith and trust in his longtime assistant Humberto Ascanio, who oversees Frankel's West Coast division when the boss is gone. High Limit and Intercontinental came to Ascanio in recent weeks after racing on the East Coast, but in the case of Three Valleys, Ascanio has supervised his training through his recent comeback victory and on up to Sunday's race. In all three cases, Ascanio has been entrusted with putting on the finishing touches before their races this weekend.

"Without him, I couldn't do it, to be honest with you," Frankel said Wednesday morning from Saratoga.

Ascanio, 58, has been with Frankel since 1973. Their backgrounds, and personalities, could not be more diverse. Frankel was the brash horseplayer from New York who turned to training and eventually landed in the Hall of Fame. He can be outspoken, and his emotions run the gamut, from volatile when he is mad to weepy when a favorite runner wins. Ascanio, from the state of Jalisco in Mexico, had no burning desire to work with horses until a relative got him a job in California with trainer Farrell Jones. He is a steadying presence - always pleasant, usually quiet, and reluctant to raise his voice.

They talk most every day, in the morning, just before the 46 California-based runners Ascanio cares for are to begin their daily training routine.

"We discuss what to do with the horses, where to run, those kinds of things," Ascanio said. "If there are any problems, I let him know. You've got to get the bad news out. No news is good news."

After that, though, Ascanio is on his own. Having worked with Frankel for more than three decades, though, what is required is second nature.

"I know his program, how to train the horses," Ascanio said. "I know how fast he wants them to work when a race is coming. He might tell me he wants a horse to go a half-mile or five-eighths, but that's it. I know how fast he wants them to go. We don't want them to go in 46 or 59. Like Intercontinental. If she works 49 and change, that's fine, especially when you are close to a race."

Ascanio had no background in racing. He rode a few pleasure horses - "not Thoroughbreds," he said - while growing up in Mexico. The offer to come to California in 1968 and work for Jones was alluring because he wasn't giving up much at the time.

"I was working at a liquor store in Tijuana, selling some booze," Ascanio said, laughing. "When my brother-in-law asked if I wanted to work for Farrell Jones, I said, 'Why not?' "

After working for Jones and another great veteran trainer, Buster Millerick, Ascanio went to work for Frankel as a groom in 1973. Soon thereafter, several of Frankel's assistants and a foreman went to work for another trainer. Ascanio was offered a promotion.

"He didn't want to take the job at the beginning," Frankel said. "He didn't want to give orders to the other guys. I think his wife talked him into it."

Ascanio has been with his wife, Maureen, since 1970. They have four children - three boys and one girl - including a son, Matthew, who works with Ascanio. Another son, Michael, is an official clocker.

Ascanio lives in Arcadia, Calif., near Santa Anita, for 45 weeks of the year, but when Del Mar is racing, he gets to stay in the swanky time-share Frankel owns at the Four Seasons Resort in nearby Carlsbad.

"My wife likes to read and sit by the pool," Ascanio said.

There are other perks.

"He makes more than 95 percent of the trainers in the country," Frankel said.

Indeed, Ascanio said he is well compensated. In addition to a salary, he gets a cut of the prize money from any stakes wins, so this weekend is potentially lucrative. That is one of the reasons Ascanio has never trained on his own, though he did train a few runners in his own name, while still working as Frankel's assistant, in the late 1980's.

"He pays me good," Ascanio said. "He takes good care of me."

And Ascanio, in turn, takes care of Frankel.

"I feel very comfortable with him," Frankel said. "I trust him."