Updated on 09/17/2011 10:24AM

Triumph of intelligence over tradition


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In many ways, Bobby Frankel fits the classic mold of a great Thoroughbred trainer. He is judicious. He is patient. He is keenly attuned to the well-being of his horses.

Yet when Frankel talks about his management of individual horses, it is clear that he approaches his work from a perspective almost unique in his business. Discussing the early career of Empire Maker, the favorite in Saturday's Kentucky Derby, he said he was glad the colt didn't run too well in the Remsen Stakes last fall. "What if he runs a 2 in November?" he asked. "He's going to go the wrong way on me."

Most horsemen would react to this statement as if Frankel were speaking Greek.

Bobby Frankel's professional odyssey has been well documented: Starting as a trainer of claiming horses in New York, he migrated west and established himself in Southern California as a specialist with older horses and grass runners. He began to train for some of the world's most important owners and breeders, and his stable is now the most formidable in America. Frankel has won the Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding trainer in each of the last three years.

As he advanced in his profession, he made an intellectual odyssey, too. In his early years as a trainer, he was often perplexed by the way his own horses performed. "I wondered why a horse would run so good one day and then come back and run so bad," he said. Horses would do so even if there seemed to be no visible change in their physical condition. Why?

Frankel began to sense that a horse who delivers a peak physical effort will regress the next time he runs - what modern-day horseplayers call a "bounce." That term was coined by Len Ragozin, the New Yorker who calculates speed figures and plots all the figures of a horse's career on a small sheet of paper; the arrangement highlights the fact that a horse's form runs in cycles, with often-predictable peaks and valleys. Many horseplayers have become disciples of the Ragozin "Sheets," and Frankel found them illuminating, too.

Frankel understood that he couldn't judge how well one of his horses had performed by simply watching a race and employing common sense. With the Ragozin numbers as a point of reference, he knew when his horses had delivered peak efforts. He could then give them a substantial rest to avoid a bounce.

He discovered a corollary to the bounce theory: If he wanted a horse to deliver a peak performance, the way to do it was to give him plenty of rest since his prior race. Historically, trainers tried to sharpen a horse by running him in a prep race shortly before the main objective; in the 1940's, horses prepared for the Kentucky Derby by racing in the Derby Trial four days earlier. Frankel turned this strategy upside-down.

Frankel's second-best 3-year-old, Peace Rules, also a Derby contender, illustrates his concept. The colt ran in turf races on Sept. 25, Oct. 24, Nov. 30, and Dec. 28, and performed well in all of them - though nobody was hailing him as a star of his generation. Then he went to the Fair Grounds for the Louisiana Derby March 9 and trounced what may have been the strongest field in any 3-year-old stakes this year. Frankel summed it up: "One month [between races], one month, one month - then 2 1/2 months and he runs the lights out."

Frankel's conviction that he could anticipate horses' peak performances led him to scrap one of the time-honored maxims of his profession. Traditional trainers developed a good young horse step by step, running him against maidens, then in allowance company, and gradually moving him into stakes races.

In his early years as a trainer, Frankel once sensed that a horse was ready to deliver a maximum effort but stuck to convention and ran him in an allowance race; the horse smashed a track record. "Why waste a big race?" he asked himself. So Frankel now thrusts young horses into tough spots that might horrify the purists.

Last year, he took over the training of Medaglia d'Oro after he had won a maiden race at Oaklawn Park. Since the colt appeared to be thriving, Frankel thrust him directly into the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes - and he won it with a smashing effort.

Because Empire Maker was regarded as a potential star before he ever ran, Frankel could meticulously plan his whole schedule leading to the first Saturday in May - one consisting of five distance races. After the colt won his debut, Frankel thrust him into competition against tough, seasoned rivals in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. He wasn't chagrined when the colt lost; he didn't want to see a peak effort too early in Empire Maker's career. (This is what prompted the comment, "What if he runs a 2 in November?" On the Ragozin scale, low numbers are best, and 2 would be an explosive performance for a youngster.)

After Empire Maker ran another uninspiring race in the Sham Stakes, Frankel equipped the colt with blinkers for the Florida Derby, feeling confident that he would deliver an improved performance. Empire Maker won at Gulfstream Park by nine lengths and then came back to win the Wood Memorial by a half-length. He didn't look so dazzling in the Wood, yet from the standpoint of speed figures, the Wood was the faster race, and Frankel knew he had Empire Maker where he wanted him.

Frankel said that if he had been aiming for a single explosive performance in the Derby, he would have skipped the Wood Memorial and raced his colt with a six-week layoff from the Florida Derby. But with the Triple Crown series ahead of him, he wants Empire Maker on a steady schedule. "I'm not trying to make him improve," Frankel said. "You look at the numbers - he looks like the best horse. If they all run their best races, he'll win."