Bobby Frankel can be brash, and he can be gruff. But when the Hall-of-Fame trainer talks about his Kentucky Oaks candidate, Flute, he gets downright mushy.
"She's a sweetheart," he said Monday morning at Churchill Downs. "Look how nice she is. I think she knows me now because I spend a lot of time with her. She's one of my favorites."
As Frankel talked, he rubbed Flute's nose and grabbed her forelock, tugging the long black hair playfully. The filly clearly enjoyed the attention. Her ears were pricked, and her eyes were bright. When Frankel stepped away, she stretched out her neck toward his retreating back and looked almost disappointed.
"Look at her," Frankel said. "It's almost like she was human. I think she's been reincarnated. Not many horses act like her. I've got two fillies back in my barn in California who will eat you alive."
So, Bobby, who do you think Flute was in previous life?
"I think she was one of my former girlfriends," he answered with a chuckle.
Flute may have the demeanor of a friendly dog, but this filly is not pet, according to her trainer. Put the saddle on her, and the Juddmonte Farms homebred turns into a never-say-die competitor. The daughter of Seattle Slew is one of the favorites for Friday's Oaks after finishing second to West Coast standout Golden Ballet in the March 10 Santa Anita Oaks.
"She never quits coming at you," said Frankel of Flute. "It's like someone you keep on hitting. You've given them a few good shots, but they keep on coming at you, and they start to make you a little nervous. In every race, she's laying her body down at the end."
Flute is lightly raced. She has made only three starts in her career, which did not begin until last December at Hollywood Park. Nothing was wrong with her physically or mentally; Frankel just doesn't get in much of a hurry with his young horses.
"I don't usually run my 2-year-olds until late in the year," Frankel said. " I guess it's my style of training. I really don't drill them to show speed, so I don't want to even waste my time running them short. With these pedigrees that mine have, they're all mostly bred to go a distance of ground, so why rush them? Let them come around on their own. She's one of few that I did run on dirt and then short because she showed me she was a little precocious."
Flute finished second in her career debut, beaten by two lengths. She made her second start in early January at Santa Anita, edging out Tomorrow's Angel by a nose in a gritty effort at a mile. Frankel then entered Flute in the Las Virgenes Stakes.
"She drew an outside post, and I thought if I ran her it would just be a wasted race," Frankel said. "She couldn't have gotten a good position. I'm glad I scratched her that day because she probably wouldn't have won, and it probably would have knocked her out a little bit. With the extra time, she really responded."
In the Santa Anita Oaks, Flute ran a solid race against a much more seasoned opponent.
"She showed me how gutty she was," Frankel said. "She was way out of it, then she ran up there and made the lead. She might have moved a hair too soon, but I can't use that as an excuse. Golden Ballet drew off on her, but she (Flute) came back at her again."
Flute has not raced since. Frankel has trained her up to the Oaks just like he did Keeper Hill, who finished second in the Santa Anita Oaks, then won the Kentucky Oaks 1998.
"I thought that was the best thing for her, and besides, I did it with Keeper Hill," Frankel says. "She (Flute) has gotten bigger and stronger; she's really matured. She's changed a lot. She's filled out. She used to have long hair, and she never really looked good. It was almost like she was a kid coming over with dirty hair to the paddock. I like my horses looking good, and she didn't look like one of my typical horses. Now, when she comes over, people are going to say. 'Wow, she looks good.' "
Flute will be ridden by Jerry Bailey in the Kentucky Oaks. There is a lot of speed in the 1 1/8-mile race, and Frankel believes it will help his filly, who will be comfortable stalking the early leaders.
"She'll run her own race," the trainer said. "I don't know how hot the pace is going to be. If it's not as hot as you think, she'll lay a little closer. If it's real hot, she might be laying farther back. I'm going to show Jerry her tapes and let him decide for himself; he's pretty clever."
As for Flute, she's one nice gal who probably won't finish last.
--Ashland Stakes winner Fleet Renee is scheduled to blow out three furlongs on Tuesday about 8:30 a.m. (EDT), according to her exercise rider, Lisa Tenney. Trainer Michael Dickinson will be on hand for the move.
Like Flute, Fleet Renee is a daughter of Seattle Slew, but she doesn't share Flute's pleasant disposition.
"She's a bit temperamental; you can't force her to do anything," Tenney said. " You have to try to keep her thinking she's doing everything herself. She doesn't like to be petted and cuddled and babied. She likes to do her thing, get it done, and then (have you) leave her alone. If you go up and try to give her a cuddle, she will bite your nose off."
Since winning the Ashland, Fleet Renee has matured a bit, gotten a little bit easier to work with, and is training better, according to Tenney.
--Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia will make Fleet Renee the morning line favorite for the Oaks.
"I was really impressed with her race in Ashland," Battaglia said. "Golden Ballet made an easy lead, and Fleet Renee kind of stalked right off of her. Then, when they turned for home, I thought Golden Ballet was long gone, but Fleet Renee blew by her. I know a lot of people thought it was just because Golden Ballet stopped, but I thought Fleet Renee was vastly improved. I think she's going to be really, really tough."
Battaglia's second choice will be Flute.
"She's been training great here, and Frankel is super high on her, so I think she will definitely get a lot of play," he said.