For Another Two Hours

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I was getting pushed around. Being told what to do. Against my will. I knew it and let it happen.

“I’m going to be more like Bobby Frankel,” I declared to my wife. “He wouldn’t have let this happen. He’d have told them, backed them right off. When Juddmonte called to see if he’d take a horse, he told them to call him back tomorrow. Frankel would have handled this differently.”

“You’re not Bobby Frankel,” she said.

Bobby Frankel’s gone. A writer will run out of adjectives to describe the Hall of Fame trainer, his personality and talent ran the gamut of description. A loner and a romantic, brash but laconic, street smart and dog crazy.

Sadly, at 68, he’s gone.

I spent three hours in his tackroom at Keeneland this spring. It would be the last time I saw him.

It was raining, and if you know Bobby, he wasn’t galloping anything, synthetic or not. A revolving door of visitors stopped in to talk. Ron Anderson, agent for Garrett Gomez, checked in about a ride and stayed 30 minutes. Bloodstock agent John Gasper stopped in for something, he stayed an hour. My friend Mike Penna stood dumfounded by Frankel’s simplicity and complexity all at the same time. It was Frankel at his best; ranting, raving, wondering, laughing, threatening, whining, questioning. He questioned everything.

He spent 20 minutes telling me that Proudinsky would make a good jumper. I finally said, “Bobby, he’s a Grade I horse on the turf, big, beautiful, a stallion. Of course he’d make a jumper but how am I going to get him as a jumper?” He didn’t miss a beat, “I got another one, Hidden Trail . . . ” Frankel owned him.

I’m glad Tom Voss and the Fields Stable got Hidden Trail.

Sadly, Frankel won’t be able to watch him the way he watched his former pupil Left Unsaid become novice champion this year. After Left Unsaid broke his maiden at Strawberry Hill, I texted Frankel. No response, but that was to be expected. He told Juddmonte to call him tomorrow, he’s certainly not replying to a text. Twenty minutes later, I see Frankel’s assistant Jose Cuevas and he tells me Left Unsaid won over jumps, that Frankel called him and told him all about the race. He knew nothing of the race, other than from my text, “Left Unsaid won over jumps. Impressive.” Cuevas told me about how well he jumped, how he looked . . . I laughed at Frankel’s boyhood excitement over a horse he trained doing something good.

The first time I had to deal with Frankel was in 2001 for The Saratoga Special. And I write deal with intentionally. I looked at Frankel as a dentist appointment; something you know you’re going to have to confront. He won the Whitney with Lido Palace; I interviewed Jerry Bailey and left it at that. Then Flute won the Alabama and Aptitude was even money the next day. Fire up the drill, time for root canal. I wasn’t intimidated by Frankel, I was scared to death of him. I forced myself to talk to him after Flute won. He said she was reincarnated. I asked the next most logical question.

“Who was she?”

“What?”

“Who was she?”

“What?”

“Well, if you say she’s reincarnated, she must have been somebody.”

He went crazy; like Newton with his light bulb. He started delving into his brain, pulling out thoughts and whims like he was weeding a garden. Searching for the answer. “Definitely a woman. Maybe one of my old girlfriends . . . she was here. I’m telling you she was here before.”

I wrote my article.

The next day, Frankel sees me, “You made a mistake in that article.”

I’m thinking, ‘He doesn’t he even know who I am, why’s he reading what I wrote?’

But that’s Frankel. He knew three separate strings of horses like he was Big Brother, he could recite the box score of the Yankees game from the night before, he could give you a logical dissertation on the Iraq war (we need to get out out of there) and correct a fact in an article in a newspaper that nobody was reading.

I was crushed. Frankel pointed out that Flute and Fleet Renee met once before in the Kentucky Oaks. I wrote that they had never met.

Frankel ranted at me, “The Kentucky Oaks. The Kentucky Oaks. The Kentucky Oaks. The #@%&*#! Kentucky Oaks.”

I wanted to crawl under the racing-office counter.

“That’s OK, that paper, that’s a stepping stone. It’s good.”

That was Frankel, knocking you down a peg, then giving you a hand up the ladder.

But like always, when a legend dies, you wonder if you appreciated him enough while he was here. There is no enough. You couldn’t get enough of Bobby Frankel. He had an aura about him, a magnetism. It was hard to explain to people who didn’t get him. The ones who did, did. The ones who didn’t, didn’t. And it would never change.

It took a while for me to learn to disagree with him. You had to pick your spots, then he’d look at you and you’d get that moment of “yeah, maybe” then he’d change the subject. The good news is we rarely disagreed. He cherished the horses, respected the game, appreciated hard work, disdained phonies and simply needed his space.

At Lone Star Park for the Breeders’ Cup, he and I stood at the rail on Friday morning, the day before the Breeders’ Cup. It was early. I had my nerve then.

“Give me your guaranteed winner.”

“Mine or on the whole card?”

“Either.”

“Ghostzapper.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, he’s a lock. A #@%&*#! lock, all right?”

That was enough for me.

I used to spend hours at his Saratoga barn, leaning on the rail, his dog Happy and later Ginger at his feet, Cuevas bantering at Tom Voss as he rode past on his pony, Antonio Graell doing tack and Frankel simply talking shop, whether it was about Joe Torre or Joe Talamo. He’d tell me about the Bold Ruler he claimed from Phipps, turned around and won a jump race at Saratoga. Then he’d tell me about jogging Squirtle Squirt leading up to winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint because he was too afraid he’d run off if he tried to gallop him. Then he’d tell me to bet all I had on Pretty Carina when she runs first time out at the meet.

I’d have a mountain of work to do, articles on horses, races and people that had nothing to do with Frankel. I’d walk away and think, ‘What in the world did I just spend two hours doing?’

What I’d do for another two hours.