11/19/2009 12:00AM

Two faces of racing brought smiles

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Bobby Frankel was a Hall of Fame trainer who died Nov. 16 at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He was 68.

Jim Shafer was a local horseplayer who died Nov. 1 at an offtrack betting facility in Lancaster, Calif. He was 61.

Everyone knew Frankel. Not as many knew Shafer. I was lucky enough to know both.

Frankel was the brash New Yorker who relocated to California more than 30 years ago. He was intimidating, fascinating, and a brilliant handicapper. If a reporter was prepared for the interview, Frankel would fill up your notebook.

Shafer was my boss at McDonald's in Arcadia. That too, was more than 30 years ago. We stayed in touch because we had more in common than burgers and fries. We were horseplayers. We had camaraderie.

Horseplayers always have something to talk about. Shafer and I enjoyed horses, betting, winning, and losing. We liked to talk about it.

Shafer died a week before Zenyatta crushed the Breeders' Cup Classic, Frankel died one week after. In the waning din, I cannot stop thinking about those two men whose company I enjoyed, and whose company I will miss.

I met Shafer long before Frankel. Good thing, because Frankel would have little time for a high school kid whose favorite bet was $2 across the board. The year was 1976, at McDonald's on Foothill Blvd., less than two miles from Santa Anita.

Shafer was the store manager, and soon after being hired, I discovered we both liked to bet.

"Like anything today?" We asked each other the same question for more than 30 years. We ran bets for each other, commiserated on the tough beats, and congratulated each other for the occasional score.

Shafer - friends called him "Shafe"- married my best friend's sister, named his son Brad, and we stayed friends after I traded my restaurant apron for an eventual career writing about horses. We could have drifted apart, as friends do. Fortunately, Shafer remained a member of our extended family even after he became single again.

He stayed in fast food, and loved to play the horses. The pick three was his favorite bet, but he also dabbled in Kentucky Derby futures. We saw each other every January at an annual Super Bowl party, and when he was not teasing me for a bad selection, he would quiz me about the 3-year-olds. Shafer was always in action.

Shafer was short, quiet, and even-tempered. He never got mad. He planned vacations around the summer meet at Del Mar and the biggest races of fall. He would have been in Las Vegas for the Breeders' Cup, but never got that far.

Shafer was off work Nov. 1, and drove to the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds in Lancaster. It was his favorite offtrack betting site. There, he suffered a heart attack and was gone.

Inside his wallet was a winning ticket. The last bet Shafer made was a winner.

He was buried at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley in a simple service attended by employees, friends, and family. A graveside wreath was white flowers embedded with yellow carnations, shaped in the form of McDonald's golden arches.

While Shafer was an everyday man as normal as any other horseplayer, Frankel was high-profile. He was famous. And he scared me. By the time I entered racing, as a rookie turf writer in the 1980s, Frankel was well on his way to becoming one of the all-time training greats.

To enter a conversation with Frankel, one needed to be prepared. Frankel did not suffer fools. He liked good stories and intelligent opinions. In the 1980s, I had neither. But with Frankel, if you wanted to learn and were not afraid to ask, he was willing to teach.

There was more to Frankel than great horses and a gruff exterior. He loved the elements of handicapping. He believed speed was a weapon, illustrated by two Grade 1 upsets he engineered - Marquetry ($56.80) raced wire to wire in the 1991 Hollywood Gold Cup, and Intercontinental ($32.20) wired the 2005 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

He logically explained "bounce" in winter 1993 at Santa Anita. Bertrando splashed to a nine-length victory in the sloppy-track Grade 2 San Fernando, which was only the second start of his comeback. Three weeks later, he lost the Strub at odds-on. Frankel speculated, "Maybe he did too much in the San Fernando." Maybe he bounced in the Strub.

Frankel understood the importance of saving ground on turf. He read the sheets. And he bristled when anyone suggested a horse that won under wraps could have run faster if turned loose. Paraphrasing, Frankel said, "Some horses run into the bridle, that's as fast as they go."

Frankel would sometimes take a shot, and push a sharp horse into a stakes race even though the horse seemed outclassed.

"Why waste a start in an allowance race?" he would ask.

He loved many types of competition, and became my information source for a "fantasy racing league" in which contestants earn points for stakes wins by horses they draft through the season. Frankel did not play in the league, but he was in tune.

After a sharp U.S. debut or a flashy allowance by one of his horses, I would ask Frankel about future expectations. Sometimes, he would shake his head no. Other times, such as when Ventura made her U.S. debut in March 2008, he would make a simple statement.

"You should pick her up."

Bobby Frankel and Jim Shafer never met. One lived in an expensive home in an affluent neighborhood. The other lived in a small apartment in the high desert.

They were kind men who loved horse racing - one a famous trainer and other a fast-food handicapper.

Everyone knew Frankel. Not as many knew Shafer.

How lucky I am, to have known them both.