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Updated on 09/17/2011 10:23AM
Still waiting to win the big one
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - At first blush, Bobby Frankel is a red-hot trainer who occasionally has a white-hot temper. Dig deeper, though, and a far more complex personality is revealed, one whose personal and professional lives are frequently at odds with one another.
Frankel was born to a middle-class family in Brooklyn, retains a generous dollop of his New York accent, but lives in the pricey Southern California neighborhood of Pacific Palisades, on a bluff with a view of Santa Monica bay.
He is Jewish, yet his primary client is an Arab prince, Saudi Arabia's Khalid Adbullah, whose Juddmonte Farms campaigns Empire Maker, the acknowledged favorite for Saturday's 129th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
In a sport known for its conservatism, Frankel is unashamedly liberal, a news hound cum political junkie who watches CNN and is well versed in national and international affairs.
Frankel is a four-time Eclipse Award winner as champion trainer, a member of the Hall of Fame, and is acknowledged by his rivals as one of the best at his craft, not only now but of all time.
Yet he has never won the Kentucky Derby or a Triple Crown race.
It is the one great accomplishment that has eluded Frankel. His long list of failures in the Breeders' Cup finally ended in 2001, when Squirtle Squirt won the Sprint. Frankel also won last year's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf with Starine. He has won the Pacific Classic six times, and has even won international events like the Japan Cup. He has adapted repeatedly throughout his career, from the claiming horses with which he began, to the grass horses that deep-pocketed clients began sending him in the 1980's. Now, he has two well-regarded 3-year-olds in this year's Derby, Empire Maker and Peace Rules.
Frankel, 61, has been a high-percentage trainer throughout his 37-year career, but his successes and failures have become magnified in recent years because the quality of the 90 or so horses he trains has grown exponentially. After winning Eclipse Awards the past three seasons, he has been on fire again this year. In the past month alone, he has won stakes with Empire Maker, Lilac Queen, Medaglia d'Oro, Midas Eyes, Peace Rules, and Sea of Showers.
"I just need one more win," he said, referring to the Derby.
Why has he not won it yet? Frankel has not attacked the Derby with the singleminded focus of a Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas, who begin pointing for the Derby the previous summer when they unveil their 2-year-olds. Frankel, whose 2-year-olds typically do not start racing until the fall, has had just four starters in the Derby, including Aptitude, who finished second in 2000 to Fusaichi Pegasus.
"I don't push them," Frankel said. "One race I will never win is the Breeders' Cup Juvenile."
"He takes his time with his horses," said Jose Cuevas, 52, a well-known exercise rider who has worked for Frankel for four years. "He wants to do it his way."
Frankel cringes when he sees horses raced ambitiously before they are ready, or when they are clearly overmatched. He said of Midas Eyes, who won Saturday's Derby Trial, "If Wayne Lukas had him, he would be in the Derby."
Frankel has a sincere, visceral affection for the animals he trains. He is extremely cautious. While he understands that injuries are not always preventable, it is rare for a Frankel horse to suffer a catastrophic injury.
"The worst part of the business is when you hurt one. That's why I'm careful," Frankel said. "Doing what I'm doing, coming from what I came from - my dad made $15,000 a year - the horses give me my lifestyle."
Prefers animals to people
That lifestyle includes few friends outside the racetrack. He is divorced. He has a 32-year-old daughter, Bethenny, who lives in New York. Frankel often dates women in the racing business. He is a homebody, who enjoys spending time with his two Australian shepherds. Even with the Derby so near, his thoughts often have wandered to those dogs, especially 14-year-old Tanya, who is ill.
"Don't get me started on that. I will start crying," he said. "The worst part is, you outlive them. I've had Tanya since she was seven weeks old. I'm all cried out. I've almost had to put her down twice. But then she looks at you with those eyes."
Frankel was distraught once before at Churchill, in 2000, when his turf mare Spanish Fern broke her pelvis leaving the gate in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, then died while being transported to a clinic near Lexington. He chafes that Churchill has still not constructed an equine hospital on the racetrack grounds.
"It might have saved her," Frankel said.
He admits he likes animals more than people.
"Without a doubt," he said.
"You could spend all day on that," he said. "I don't know. It's something I better sit on a couch to figure out."
Frankel has become more relaxed dealing with the media, although it is not his favorite activity. This spring, Frankel prepared himself for the time demands he knew would be placed on the trainer of the Derby favorite, though he joked, "I should hire Bob Baffert as my press secretary. He has practice doing this. And he has got nothing to do."
One morning this week, a local television cameraman stood by patiently for more than 30 minutes while Frankel answered questions from print reporters. Finally, the cameraman approached Frankel and politely asked if Frankel would tape a first-person introduction to a local station.
Frankel was in a cheeky mood. Told he was supposed to say, "I'm Bobby Frankel. Good morning, Kentuckiana," Frankel wondered about the etymology of Kentuckiana.
"It's a combination of Kentucky and Indiana," he was told. "It sounds better than Indi-ucky."
"Let's do Indi-ucky," Frankel said, laughing. "Good morning, Indi-ucky."
In the mornings, Frankel is a caldron of emotions. He can be playful and witty, but if something goes wrong, he will blow up. When Cuevas misplaced some important documents last week, Frankel bombed the barn with expletives. Minutes later, when the papers were found, he acted as if nothing had happened.
"They don't get their feelings hurt," Frankel said. "They just go in the tack room and start laughing at me."
In a business where turnover among employees can be frequent, Frankel inspires unwavering loyalty. His primary assistant, Humberto Ascanio, has worked with Frankel for nearly 30 years. Every morning when he is on the road, Frankel will phone Ascanio and go over that day's training schedule at Frankel's Hollywood Park barn. Another assistant, Ruben Loza - who is here this week - has worked for Frankel since 1977.
"He takes care of his horses," said Loza, 48. "If he sees something wrong, he doesn't send them to the track. He's honest. He doesn't take a penny from nobody. He has got grooms who have been with him for 15 or 20 years."
Employees part of share the wealth plan
One reason they stay is that Frankel's employees are among the best paid at the track. They get a percentage of the barn's purse earnings. In recent years, with stakes victory upon stakes victory, the money has rolled in.
"I've got grooms who make more than 98 percent of the trainers in this country," Frankel said. "It's profit sharing. The more we win, they more they make."
He has made plenty of money himself. Frankel's introduction to racing was through gambling on horses. More than 40 years ago, he took $40 to the track in New York, got on a roll after betting $20 on the winning daily double, and by day's end made a successful $3,000 win bet on a 3-1 shot. He came home with $20,000.
"I put the money on my mother's bed," he said. "She thought I had robbed a bank."
Last year, Frankel was given a Bentley as a gift by owner Ed Gann after Medaglia d'Oro won the Travers Stakes. Frankel felt sheepish about it. "It's not my style," he said. Frankel similarly is not star struck. At last year's Derby, rap impresario P. Diddy tried to engage Frankel in the paddock, but Frankel was preoccupied. "Those kind of people don't impress me," he said.
Throughout the morning, Frankel is busy. Between training sets of horses, he will scan the newspaper, making asides about something that was written by a journalist, or a quote from a trainer. He will duck into his tack room and monitor the morning news programs. He will complain about his lack of sleep and about his allergies acting up.
"All the Jews got allergies," he said, adding an expletive before allergies.
He adds expletives when talking politics, too. "The guy who used to be the head of the CIA, what's his name?" Frankel said, referring to James Woolsey. "What a moron he is.
"I look at things differently. But most of America doesn't see things the way people do in New York or L.A.," he said. "Now it comes out there's no chemical weapons, no weapons of mass destruction.
"I don't know why anybody would want to be President, with all the aggravation," he said.
Frankel prefers to fight his battles on the track. He is extremely competitive, a holdover from his days as a high school basketball player. When he is at Churchill Downs, he likes to go to the Derby Museum and watch the emotional video presentation that is the cornerstone of the facility.
"When they play that [expletive] in the museum, that's touching," Frankel said. "In my profession, if you're competitive, and you want to be on top, that's the race - the Derby. You can win the Pacific Classic six times, but no one knows who you are. People in the business do, but not anyone else. What am I going to say when people ask if I've won the Derby? - I finished second?"
Does he have any idea how he would feel if he were to win the Derby on Saturday?
"I don't know what I would do," Frankel said. "But I would like to feel it."