Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Final piece of puzzle is within grasp


Triple Crown victory would cap Hall of Famer Frankel's career

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Trainer Bobby Frankel appears pensive in the barn with Kentucky Derby hopeful Empire Maker on the backside at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
(Gary Landers photo)
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LOUISVILLE - Bobby Frankel began training horses in 1966 to fund a gambling habit he had at New York tracks. The maddening part came when he got good at training but found himself hamstrung by his horseflesh.

"I used to look over there (at other barns) and see those well-bred horses," he said Tuesday at Churchill Downs. "I never thought I'd get the horses I do now."

Which is to say, horses good enough for him to be named the nation's top trainer the past three years. And to rank as the man to beat Saturday at the Kentucky Derby.

The 61-year-old Brooklyn native will saddle prohibitive favorite Empire Maker and probable second choice Peace Rules in a bid for his first victory in a Triple Crown race - the last major goal eluding the Hall of Fame trainer.

"It would be the biggest thing in my career, definitely," Frankel said of potentially winning Saturday. "Because it's like the World Series or the Super Bowl. It's the biggest race."

It's hard to overstate the roll Frankel is on right now. He had a huge year in 2001, with nearly $15 million in purse earnings, then bettered it with a dominant 2002 season. He had $17.7 million in earnings, just $100,000 off D. Wayne Lukas' single-season North American record.

It's a long way from the 1970s and '80s, when a feisty Frankel earned renown as the "King of the Claimers," claiming horses and turning them into low-grade stakes winners.

"You think I'm testy. You should have seen me in 1972," he said. "I was crazy."

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Frankel recalls the day he won three or four races at Hollywood Park, then in his bid for a sweep, his final horse got nipped by a nose. He went back to the barn and started throwing things around.

"When I lost a race, I was unbearable," he said. "I didn't know any better. I thought I should win all the time.

"When you get beat, it humbles you. Over time, you mellow out a lot."

In the early 1990s came his big break. Juddmonte Farms, the famed global breeding and racing entity owned by Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah, was seeking a new trainer for its U.S. horses. It conducted a computer study to determine which trainer best fit its stable, and Frankel topped the list.

"I didn't know who they were, so I said I'd call them the next day," Frankel said. "I think they were surprised I didn't say yes right away. I looked in the program and read who they were."

Frankel since has had the luxury of a new development strategy, frequently buying young horses after they've run for someone else first. It's a more expensive yet more accurate way of finding strong stock.

For instance, while Empire Maker was bred by Juddmonte from strong bloodlines, Frankel persuaded owner Edmund Gann to buy Peace Rules for his stable last fall.

"We don't talk much about strategy in this sport as in football or basketball," Louisville-based trainer Elliott Walden said. "But Bobby has a very good game plan, buying horses that are already made."

Frankel has won four Eclipse Awards as the nation's top trainer, including the last three. He credits his success to having owners who don't question his decisions.

"This game is a game of opinions," Frankel said. "I've got to use my opinion. Some trainers try to oblige their owners and go against their best judgment. That's when you get into trouble."

Frankel has eschewed the Derby-or-bust regimen employed by trainers like Lukas and Bob Baffert.

He had his first Derby horses in 1990, as Pendleton Ridge finished 13th and Burnt Hills 14th. Then he didn't return until 2000, when Aptitude was second. Last year, his Medaglia d'Oro finished fourth.

Even losing Saturday might not shake him.

"My life's fulfilled as far as what I do," Frankel said. "If I don't win the Derby, I've still had a good career. Whatever happens (Saturday), I did the best I could."

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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