Remembering Bobby Frankel

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Jockey Javier Castellano tightened the strap on his left glove, made sure his fingers fit nice and snug. Did the same to his right. And listened to the workout instructions . . .

“Do what we did the last time. I know she’s strong, but you’re not going to go that far. Back up to the five-eighths pole and start from there. She can pick it up, but I only want her to work the last quarter though. OK?”

Castellano nodded his head, did up the chin strap on his helmet and answered. “Maybe she should go three-eighths, don’t you think?”

“. . . OK, three-eighths is fine.”

Castellano got a leg up and headed for the track. Bobby Frankel, the other side of the conversation, leaned on the rail at his barn on the Oklahoma side at Saratoga and smiled at the way the work for stakes mare Sugar Shake came to be.

“I knew he was going to say that. I really want her to go three-eighths, but I knew if I said that he would have said a half and I don’t want her to go a half. I said a quarter so he would say three-eighths. She’s strong, really strong. He can’t hold her, even with the gloves.”

Frankel, Hall of Fame trainer, was always thinking. He won 3,654 races during a career that started with cheap claimers and ended with world-class stakes horses in 2009. Monday, he lost a battle with cancer, and his life ended at 68. I only interviewed him a handful of times and was really just hanging around that day of Sugar Shake’s workout at Saratoga. But the conversation with Castellano captured Frankel’s essence as a trainer. He thought about his horses, all the time. He talked about them like they were people, tried to get inside their heads, often came up empty when searching for explanations. Mostly, he did his best to figure them out – while realizing he couldn’t.

A native of Brooklyn, Frankel got started in racing as a handicapper. He walked hots on the backside. He saddled his first winner in 1966, successfully played the claiming game, even trained a few steeplechase winners. From humble beginnings, the stable turned into a New York force and then went to California where more success followed. By his Hall of Fame induction in 1995, Frankel ran East and West divisions and trained for powerhouse clients including Juddmonte Farm.

The stable stars included champions Bertrando, Ghostzapper, Ginger Punch, Intercontinental, Leroidesanimaux, Possibly Perfect, Ryafan, Squirtle Squirt and Wandesta. Beyond them, major winners Empire Maker, Denon, Cacique, Aptitude, Ventura, Lido Palace, Megahertz, Sightseek, Tates Creek, Peace Rules, Midas Eyes, Medaglia d’Oro filled the barn. But he probably remembered the early names – the ones the rest of us never knew – just as fondly.

Like most really talented horsemen, he remained an enigma. You couldn’t really explain Frankel. Couldn’t really pin him down. He didn’t boast, but he told it like it was. He loved our paper, The Saratoga Special, but he made life difficult for interviewers. He read the paper, though, and made sure he told us when he liked something and when he didn’t. He’d point out mistakes. He’d tell us when it was good. He scared us at the beginning. We didn’t really want to talk to him. By the end, he was spinning tales into tape recorders, telling us Alabama winner Flute was reincarnated. “Coulda been a woman,” Frankel said when asked who she was in her past life. That was 2001, the first year of The Special. He told us the paper was “a stepping stone.” Bobby, we’re still trying to figure out what for.

Frankel liked it when you asked him a question that made him think – if you got to the question. As the journalism professors said, “just keep asking.”

Somewhere along the line, he gained a reputation for being gruff with the media. He was gruff, but only when you wasted his time. So we made sure we didn’t waste his time. Saved the interviews for when we needed them, left him alone – to think about his horses – when we could. He watched the races from the racing secretary’s office and we sometimes staked out the spot – until everyone else figured it out.

He and Barclay Tagg were THE stories of 2003 when Funny Cide and Empire Maker aimed for the Travers. The former went to the Haskell at Monmouth Park. The latter went to the Jim Dandy. In the end, neither ran in the Travers. Frankel’s Empire Maker was coughing. Tagg’s Funny Cide ran a fever. Though they were opponents, the trainers dealt with similar issues and talked at length about the difficulties of training Thoroughbreds in the spotlight. They wrestled with their thoughts, their guts, their opinions.

They both wound up criticized for their decisions not to run. They both made the right call, however, and gained respect for it. At some point that summer, I remember wandering by Frankel’s barn with a kid or two in tow. We asked if we could see Empire Maker – Frankel just backed up and pointed us down the shedrow. The horse stood there, let my sons rub him on the nose. As we left, Frankel asked us what we thought of his horse.

“Amazing,” somebody stammered.

The horse and the man.

Frankel died far too young. He should have gotten the opportunity to become a true dean of American trainers – maybe scaled back his operation, enjoyed it all the more. It would have been fun to listen to him for another decade and beyond. Bobby Frankel at 80, now that would have been something.

We missed him this past summer in Saratoga. It wasn’t the same on that side of the track. The horses were still there. The barn. The people. The blue and white saddle towels. That souped up golf cart. The Frankel Parking sign (somebody get that for the Hall of Fame). But no Frankel, and it felt empty.

Now it’s even emptier.