Winning Belmont Trainer: Making the Grade

Winning Belmont Trainer: Making the Grade
Photo: Mike Corrado
Trainer Bobby Frankel.
Published in the June 14 issue of The Blood-Horse
Bobby Frankel has almost done it all as a trainer. He's won the last three Eclipse Awards as North America's top trainer to go with the one he earned in 1993. He joined the pantheon of greats while being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. The money titles come with a large margin of victory. Last year he came oh-so-close to topping D. Wayne Lukas' single season money mark of $17,842,358 while racking up $17,748,340 in earnings.

While his win percentage in the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships is paltry to his normal strike rate, he has won two Breeders' Cup races in the last two years. He now has a classic win in his back pocket as the result of Juddmonte Farms' Empire Maker's win in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

"He's a DiMaggio; he's a Ruth," said trainer-turned-bloodstock agent Mark Reid. The Reid/Frankel pipeline is among the most feared in racing. Through Reid, Frankel has purchased top runners like You and Medaglia d'Oro. "I've been around a lot of horsemen, and he's as good as they come."

It's fitting Frankel won his first classic race in the Belmont. Raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Frankel quickly became known as "King of the Claimers" in New York after taking out his license in 1966, deftly moving horses up following a claim. He moved to California in 1972 and never missed a beat, all the while improving his stock. His first classic starter came in 1975 when Goldmills Farm's Native Guest finished seventh in the Preakness.

His winning percentage was so good, it caught the eye of Prince Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who sought Frankel's talents out for his North American racing stable. The union gave Frankel top-level bloodlines, talent, and firepower that have helped vault him through the grade I stratosphere.

Not only does he have the cream of the Juddmonte horses, he also trains North American runners for the Niarchos family's Flaxman Holdings, and has other top clients like Frank Stronach and Edmund Gann.

The 61-year-old Frankel is a work in progress: sometimes shy, sometimes boastful, and sometimes acerbic. You could see a bit of all three in the moments after his Belmont victory.

"It's the biggest thrill I've had in racing," he said with sincerity. Then just moments later, while waiting for a television interview, he told an anchor in his best Brooklyn accent, "I've been out in the rain for an hour here already." He was then whisked off to a press conference where he toyed with reporters by asserting brash confidence in his horse.

Confidence is something that comes naturally to a horseman who knows what he's doing.

"He pays attention to detail more than anybody," Reid said. "He never misses a stroke. He has 100 horses in his barn and he knows them all. He does all the homework. He works harder than anybody; he's smarter than most; and he holds a big edge."

That edge is seen by Ron Anderson, jockey Jerry Bailey's agent. Anderson has a long-standing relationship with Frankel and now talks to him three to four times a day while arranging mounts for big races all across the country. They met in California in early 1973 while Anderson was handling Fernando Toro's book, then Gary Stevens'. "He was cocky, flamboyant, and boisterous at the time," Anderson said. "He knew what he could do and couldn't do. He had confidence from the start.

"He always finds a way to win, from claiming horses to stakes horses," Anderson said. "Back then he knew when to run, when to drop them in class. He's always had that unique, keen sense of how to win."

That keen sense is now making grade I sense. The 800-pound gorilla the last few years in the graded stakes ranks has reached gigantic proportion. Last year he won 43 graded stakes, 14 of the grade I variety. This year alone, through the Belmont Stakes, there have been 30 grade I races run in the U.S., and Frankel has won 10 of them. Empire Maker has won the Belmont, Wood Memorial, and Florida Derby. Denon won the Manhattan Handicap 40 minutes before the Belmont. Aldebaran won the San Carlos and Met Mile Handicaps. Milwaukee Brew won the Santa Anita Handicap. Peace Rules, Sightseek, and Tates Creek have also won grade I races.

"He's very instinctual; he works off feel," Anderson said. "There are certain elite horsemen who have a tremendous sixth sense. He has that.

"He treats people real well. He has people that have been working for him for 30 years," Anderson continued. "He's kind and generous." Exercise rider Jose Cuevas has been with Frankel for four years. He came to work for Frankel because he was tired of getting beat by him.

Frankel may treat his staff well, but he treats his horses even better.

"He doesn't treat people nearly as good as he treats his horses," according to Reid. "You don't see Bobby Frankel horses break down; they don't run unless they're ready to go. He's the consummate horseman."

"He's got a great appreciation for the horses," said Garrett O'Rourke, farm manager for Abdullah's Juddmonte. "It's not a job with him. He loves this, seven days a week, 365 days a year."

There may be jealousy from other top trainers, but there is also plenty of respect. Lukas, a fellow Hall of Famer, however, places credit where credit is due. Prior to the Belmont, Lukas was the only trainer to saddle a Belmont winner off a five-week layoff. He sent out Commendable to win the 2000 running over the Frankel-trained, and favorite, Aptitude. Now Frankel shares that distinction. "If anybody but Frankel had that horse, he couldn't do it," Lukas said. "Some guys on the Triple Crown trail can't do that...but he can. Time is your ally if you're a horse trainer and if you know what you're doing. You're going to war here; it's not the junior prom."

Frankel went into war in the Belmont with the confidence of four-star General Tommy Franks of the U.S. Central Command. "I was so relaxed," Frankel said. "I've run second in this race before. I wanted to win it, but mainly for the horse. I want to get him back on top." Frankel is also as good a handicapper as he is a horseman and he knows New Yorkers can sense a good thing. "The good handicappers bet on this horse; the fans bet on Funny Cide out of sentiment," he said.

Despite the wise-guy image, it's his ability to get the best out of horses and his sometimes-brutal honesty that sets him apart.

"Beyond his gruff exterior and his cynical outlook, he's really just a straight shooting guy," Reid said. "There are no curve balls with him. He tells it like it is. He's blunt, straightforward, and honest."

And now, he truly is a classic guy.

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