Bobby Frankel

Bobby Frankel

Anne M. Eberhardt

A Nack BackTrack: Kentucky Derby 2003 Eludes Frankel

This week BackTrack celebrates the late Bill Nack's work for BloodHorse.

At precisely 6:30 p.m. on the first Saturday in May, head down and meandering slowly as he pressed a cell phone to his right ear, Bobby Frankel crossed the mile chute at old Churchill Downs and wended his way into the stable area, looking for a twilight instant like the loneliest horse trainer in the world.

Behind him, as he made his way back to Barn 43, the Twin Spires of the Downs—the very symbol of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) itself and of the eternal quest of horsemen to win it—loomed mockingly along the distant skyline, as if to frame the man in silhouette in the early evening light. Just a half-hour earlier, in a finish that had left him once again as one of the greatest trainers never to win a Triple Crown event, the Hall of Fame conditioner watched in considerable horror as the 12-1 longshot, Funny Cide—after going hammer-and-tongs into the stretch with one of his horses, Peace Rules—gradually pulled away from him and Frankel's big horse, Empire Maker , in the final 220-yard race to the wire, winning the 129th Derby by 13/4 lengths.

As the trainer of two such highly touted stablemates—Empire Maker, the hero of the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Wood Memorial (gr. I), was the favorite at 5-2, while Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner Peace Rules went to the post as the second choice at 6-1—this was the Kentucky Derby that had Frankel's name on it, the one he was supposed to win. Alas, his two colts came up just short, with Empire Maker ending up second, Peace Rules third. And now, pulling up at Barn 43, Frankel was only beginning to sort it all out.

"It was not meant to be," he finally said. "I watched it in the paddock on TV. I thought I was gonna win turning for home. The other horse (Funny Cide) ran a good race in the Wood to finish second, and he just outran me today. What can I say? I'm taking it better than I thought I would take it. So I'm fine. It hurts a little bit but I'll get over it. You learn as you go along ... I'm not going to think about it. It won't keep me up at night, worrying if I'll ever win this race. A lot of trainers never even get to the Derby. A lot of great trainers never won this race."

Of course, Frankel is not the first trainer to saddle a powerful team of horses in the Kentucky Derby and then watch them in dismay as they struggled home up the track, or hung like yesterday's laundry at the eighth pole, or got beat as they got up late in the closing yards. Indeed, down through history—all the way back to the inaugural running of the Derby, in 1875—a host of talented stablemates have gone to the post with the look of eagles only to pull up with the countenance of beagles.

No one in racing is more conversant on the subject of the Derby's merry unpredictability than Bob Baffert, who has twice brought powerful contingents to the race but then left Churchill empty. Baffert had barely gotten over the horrors of the bumper-car Derby of 1999 when he suffered his most enduring nightmare two years later. He failed with one of the most powerful pair of stablemates ever to contest the race. In '99, he saddled the favored entry of General Challenge and Excellent Meeting along with the third choice in the race, Prime Timber, but in the end his only victory was that they had survived the race.

"General Challenge nearly went down in the first run past the stands when he clipped heels with the horse in front of him," Baffert said. "A horrible trip. I thought Excellent Meeting had a good chance to win but she had a terrible trip, too." General Challenge finished 11th and the filly fifth, a nose behind Prime Timber, who was stacked wide on both turns and bothered through the final lane.

That was when Baffert learned, in the hardest way imaginable, the First Law of Derby Day at the Downs. "There are no guarantees."

In 2001, the Fates made sure he had learned his lesson well, fairly rubbing his nose in it, when he sent out Point Given and Congaree in the 127th Derby. Jockey Aaron Gryder, confusing the Derby with the Debutante, sent Songandaprayer smoking through the fastest half-mile in Derby history, :44.86, cooking the chances of every horse who got too close to the heat, among them Baffert's two colts. "That pace was ridiculous," he said. "Point Given got too close to it. We took him out of his game."

By consensus, to be sure, the most formidable stablemates ever to run in the Derby were Calumet Farm's diabolical duo of Citation and Coaltown. Citation was the 2-year-old champion in 1947 and emerging at three as one of the greatest horses in the long annals of the sport. An extremely fast horse who could stay, Coaltown was a champion in the making--to be crowned America's leading handicap horse in 1949 and co-Horse of the Year.

Eddie Arcaro, Citation's jockey, had been so impressed by Coaltown that he asked Ben A. Jones, Calumet's master horseman, if he was on the right horse. To which Jones replied, famously: "Eddie, if I thought Coaltown would win this Derby, you'd be on him."

Dr. Alex Harthill, just out of veterinary school at Ohio State, treated the Calumet horses and recalled that there was no doubt in the barn as to who was the better horse. In his office acorss from the Downs, Harthill pointed to a photograph hanging on the wall of a moon-faced gent astride a horse. "See that man there," Harthill said.

"When he told you something, it was law. You could bet on it." The photo was of Ben A. sitting on Churchill, his stable pony. "Stupid people thought that Coaltown could beat Citation," Harthill said. "Ben A. told me over the winter, when we were at Hialeah, 'You can bet on whoever you want, but Citation is gonna win the Derby. He's the real racehorse.' "

Unlike most Derbys, the 74th running went precisely as Jones had scripted it in his head that winter. Coaltown set a fast pace in the slop, but Citation came to him boldly around the turn and pulled away as Arcaro hand-rode him down the lane, finally beating him pointless by 3 1/2 lengths.

Citation's victory over his stablemate was more of an historic anomaly than it was the norm. Of course, too, the incomparable Secretariat pulverized his hapless entrymate, Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Angle Light, in the 1973 Derby, but more common was what transpired in the inaugural running. The little chestnut, Aristides, was supposed to set the pace for his more illustrious stablemate, Chesapeake, and as they turned for home Aristides' jockey, Oliver Lewis, found himself still sitting on the lead. The owner/breeder of the two colts, H.P. McGrath, was at the head of the stretch when Lewis raced by him. McGrath looked in vain for Chesapeake, but he was nowhere in the hunt. Lewis looked over at McGrath, as though wondering what to do. McGrath yelled, "Go on with him!" Lewis set Aristides down, beat back two challengers, and won the first Kentucky Derby by two lengths.

That inaugural running served as a precursor to all those Derbys in which the supposedly weaker half of the entry jumped up and whipped the stable's more ballyhooed star. So it was that Sir Barton, on his way to becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 1919, crushed his far more esteemed stablemate, Billy Kelly, setting all the pace, turning back his challenge at the eighth pole, and galloping off to beat him by five lengths. Two years later, Col. E.R. Bradley favored his colt, Black Servant, because he was a son of his own stallion, Black Toney, and no one thought much of his other horse, Behave Yourself. Midway through the stretch, as the two colts battled it out, a hat sailed over Black Servant's head, making him bobble off stride, and at once Behave Yourself's rider, Charles Thompson, set his colt down. Black Servant's rider, Lawrence Lyke, saw what Thompson was doing and yelled, "Take back, you son of a bitch."

Infuriating Bradley, Thompson drove on and won it by a head.

So it was, more recently, that Thunder Gulch whipped on his more fancied stablemates, Timber Country and Serena's Song, and so it was again that Real Quiet, at 8-1, ran away from his more accomplished stablemate and Derby favorite, Indian Charlie.

Provocateurs had been telling Frankel all week about the Derby's history of raising and anointing the lesser half of entries, and he liked Peace Rules' chances should Empire Maker fail. "I know this business," Frankel said. "I've been beaten with 3-5 shots--when I looked like I was a cinch." He knew of the First Law: "No way am I a cinch. You're never a cinch in a race like this. But I really think I can do it this year."

At the end of that long walk back to his barn after the race, Frankel was the picture of a man who had come to the Derby with loaded guns only to see them fire but miss--just miss. In fact, he had had himself an otherwise extraordinary day. He had won three stakes on the Derby undercard, finished second in another, and hit the board twice in the Derby. And he had finished second with a horse who had been hobbled by a bruised hoof during Derby week. "I don't want to make excuses," he said, "but it wasn't the perfect scenario going into the race. But he still ran good."

Here he managed the thinnest of smiles. "I'm doin' pretty good," he said. "Not a bad day! I'm doin' all right. Nobody should feel sorry for me."