08/26/2001 11:00PM

Two guys named Bob own the game


DEL MAR, Calif. - If the Breeders' Cup were run tomorrow, or the World Thoroughbred Championships - either one - two guys named Bob would have the horses to beat in all five of the races run on the Belmont Park dirt, or sand. Either one.

There could be some confusion. Like, what happened to the Breeders' Cup? Doesn't the WTC have something to do with tennis? Are all great trainers named Bob? Hopefully, this will help.

Frankel, Robert J., was born July 9, 1941, when America was still innocent and his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y., was a garden of earthly delights.

Baffert, Robert A., was born on Jan. 13, 1953, and raised on a chicken ranch near the Arizona border town of Nogales, where Gila monsters roam and the desert always wins.

Frankel goes by Bobby, rarely Bob. Baffert goes by Bob. His big brother Bill calls him Bobby.

Baffert shares his birthday with Charles Nelson Reilly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and T Bone Burnett. Frankel shares his with Tom Hanks, John Tesh, and Richard Roundtree. Talkin' 'bout Shaft.

I'm a Scorpio, and Scorpios don't believe in astrology. But for those who do, Frankel was born under Cancer, the sign of the crab, while Baffert hails from the house of Capricorn, the sign of the goat. Both Bobs were born in the Chinese year of the Snake. Go figure.

Frankel is the one with the close-cropped dark hair flecked with a little gray, the sharp duds, and no entourage. He only smiles when he wins, and lately he's been smiling a lot.

Baffert's wispy white locks can be spotted a mile away, usually in a crowd of his own creation. He spends more on sunglasses than a third-world dictator. And he grins at odd times and for no apparent reason, as if listening to a joke playing softly in his head.

Baffert has done commercials for the Breeders' Cup. Frankel has done commercials for the Daily Racing Form. Neither one of them was required to play a banjo or sing country western tunes, although Baffert volunteered.

Frankel's name can be found on a plaque in the Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs. Originally, it said "Bobby."

Frankel had them change it to Robert, because that is the name his mother gave him, and his mother is the reason he loves horse racing.

Bob Baffert, a future Hall of Famer, seems content until then to be seen in the celebrity crowd at Laker games, talking on his cellphone during commercial breaks. Bob Costas knows his name.

Their lives are not without ripples. Both Baffert and Frankel are being subjected to ongoing hearings and mounting legal fees courtesy of the California Horse Racing Board, which allegedly found traces of a substance that tested like morphine in horses they ran a year ago. Neil Papiano, attorney to the stars, represents them both.

Back in 1973, syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Murray wrote, "You look at Bobby Frankel and you figure there's a slow leak in 'Guys and Dolls.' He looks like the kind of guy you could unload a hot horse on, (but) you would be making the biggest miscalculation since the Japanese at Midway."

In early 1999, Baffert was profiled in The New Yorker by Bill Barich under the headline, "The Magic Man - Has the trainer Bob Baffert found a sure fire way to win the Kentucky Derby?" Baffert hasn't won the Derby since. Damn that New Yorker jinx.

It takes money to do what they do best. Frankel's primary client is a courtly Arab prince who rarely attends the races in America. When he does, he maintains a profile so low that he is difficult to identify.

Baffert has a stable full of brave owners - including Bob and Beverly Lewis, John and Betty Mabee, Robert and Janice McNair, Mike and Gator Pegram - but his most prominent patron these days is a glad-handing Arab prince who follows his horses from coast to coast and insists that people call him Ahmed.

Right now and for the foreseeable future, Baffert and Frankel are running 1-2 in the Daily Racing Form's national leaderboard with about $23 million between them. Take away Point Given's $3.9 million and they would be neck and neck.

In August, which is almost done, either Frankel or Baffert won the Travers, the Alabama, the Haskell, the Pacific Classic, the Del Mar Handicap, the Saratoga Breeders' Cup Handicap, the Del Mar Debutante, the Pat O'Brien, the King's Bishop, the Best Pal, and the Adirondack. They let the Germans win the Million.

Two months from now, if everything keeps clicking, Frankel will be looking at a Breeders' Cup line-up that will include Flute in the Distaff, You in the Juvenile Fillies, and Squirtle Squirt in the Sprint. Baffert has the card covered as well, with Point Given in the Classic, El Corredor in the Sprint, Officer in the Juvenile, and Habibti in the Juvenile Fillies.

But whoa. Before you bet the boat, bear in mind that Baffert has won with only two of his 26 Breeders' Cup starters, while Frankel has started 36 in the Breeders' Cup without a single win. Circle the date - Oct. 27 might be the only day the rest of the racing world stands a chance.