Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who had been battling leukemia for most of the year, died peacefully at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. at 5:40 a.m. (EST) Nov. 16. He was 68. Frankel’s ex-wife, Bonita, and his daughter, Bethenny, were at his side. Juddmonte Farms racing manager Garrett O’Rourke said Frankel had recently returned home from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and was “very lucid and aware of his fate.”
Frankel requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Old Friends retirement home, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and CANTER, an organization to find homes for retired horses.
“What a fighter he was,” said Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, wife of trainer John Shirreffs and Frankel’s medical power of attorney. “He fought such a tough fight right to the end. The last race he watched was Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I).
“His final words to John were, ‘What a helluva job you did with that horse, and to do it under that kind of pressure.’ After we left, John said to me, ‘Bobby is at peace with this.’ He could see it.”
Frankel had suffered from lymphoma several years ago, but it turned into leukemia this year, and he was forced to direct the operation of his powerful stable from his home through his longtime assistants Humberto Ascanio in California and Ruben Loza in New York. He had given up the majority of his horses, except for those owned by Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms, with whom he had tremendous success over the years.
“Our relationship started out as a friendly one,” said O’Rourke. “But my admiration for Bobby and his achievements evolved into quite a close friendship, one that never was forced. Bobby could put on a cold exterior, but there was a softness inside him, especially for animals. He had a genuine love for and connection with animals, mainly horses and dogs. He had a very kind side to him.
“The Prince (Abdullah) recognized Bobby’s brilliance and rewarded him by turning over all his horses in North America to him. I didn’t have much of a hand in what went on in the barn. The Prince believed when you place the horses in the hands of someone that brilliant, you never questioned him, even if you didn’t understand what he was doing. That was the case with Intercontinental in the 2005 (Emirates Airline) Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), when Bobby decided to stretch her out farther than she’d ever gone before and put her on the lead at all costs, and she led every step of the way. It was one of the great calls he’s made over the years and was part of the brilliance of the man.
“Bobby obviously valued his relationship with Juddmonte. He could get pretty irritated with owners when they forced his hand. Every now and then I’d make a suggestion, but I knew what to bring up and what not to bring up. With Bobby it was like giving Michael Jordan the ball and telling him to go win the game. Bobby was the one in whose hands you wanted the ball. His last request was to run in the Matriarch Stakes (gr. IT) with Ventura and we certainly will honor that. I remember having dinner with Bobby a few years ago and was inquiring about running a horse in the Del Mar Handicap (gr. IIT). I asked him, ‘Have you ever won that race?’ and he just looked at me and said, ‘Only four times.’ That certainly put me in my place.”
Frankel, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995, trained 10 Eclipse champions in his 43-year career—Ghostzapper, Bertrando, Intercontinental, Leroidesanimaux, Possibly Perfect, Ryafan, Squirtle Squirt, Wandesta, Aldebaran, and Ginger Punch. His big moment in the Triple Crown was winning the 2003 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with Juddmonte’s Empire Maker, who had finished second in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) after missing training the entire week prior to the race with a foot bruise.
Frankel won the Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer in 1993, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003. In 2003, he set a record by winning 25 grade I stakes, while earning a record $19,143,289, shattering D. Wayne Lukas’ previous mark of $17,842,358. After moving his stable from New York to California in 1972, he was the leading trainer at Hollywood Park nine times, including six consecutive years from 1972-77. He was the leading trainer at Santa Anita five times and at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet six times, and topped the trainers’ list four times at Del Mar, where he won the $1-million Pacific Classic six times, including four consecutive years, 1992-95.
In 2007 he became the second trainer in North America to reach $200 million in career earnings, joining D. Wayne Lukas.
Frankel was born July 9, 1941 in Brooklyn, N.Y., not exactly the spawning ground for Thoroughbred trainers. His first memory of horses was at age 10 when his parents wanted to watch the trotters on TV and he wanted to watch something else. He eventually accompanied his parents to Roosevelt Raceway and was captivated by the gambling aspect of the sport. He was enlightened to Thoroughbred racing when his father took him to Belmont Park, and it didn’t take him long to get hooked. He’d go to a candy store in Far Rockaway every night at around 8 o’clock to get the Daily Racing Form as soon as it came out, so he could get an early start on handicapping the next day’s races.
He attended C.W. Post College on Long Island but lasted only one day. “I got into a fight my first day and knew I didn’t belong there, so I got the hell out,” he recalled several years ago. “I looked for jobs where I could maneuver to go to the track in the afternoon. I worked in construction in the mornings putting up rock lath, and then I’d leave for the track.”
Frankel eventually became a hotwalker for trainers Bill Corbellini and Buddy Bellew in Florida, while gambling in the afternoons. He got started as a trainer by claiming a horse named Pink Rose off Allen Jerkens. After winning his first race with Double Dash at Aqueduct on Nov. 29, 1966, he built up his stable with the help of his main client, Wall Street trader William “Willie” Frankel (no relation). In 1970, Frankel made his first major impact on the sport, winning the prestigious Suburban Handicap with former claimer Barometer and Brighton Beach Handicap with Baitman.
It was William Frankel who was the impetus for Frankel’s move to California. The owner told Frankel he didn’t want to run his horses in Maryland during the winter any longer. It was after Frankel was denied stalls at Hialeah that he decided to head West. In his first year there he won 60 races for an astounding 33% win ratio.
“I was winning three a day like nothing,” he said. “It was unbelievable. Every horse I ran, they tested.”
Frankel built up a powerful client base, with Juddmonte, Edmund Gann, Frank Stronach, Jerry Moss, Bert Firestone, and Stavros Niarchos.
Frankel’s love of animals, especially his dogs, became well known, and he was often seen at the track with his Australian Shepherds, most recently Happy, Ginger, and Punch, the last two named after his champion mare Ginger Punch.
Frankel had a particular affection for any offspring from Juddmonte’s amazing broodmare Hasili, who produced grade I winners Champs Elysees, Banks Hill, Cacique, Intercontinetal, and Heat Haze, and grade I-placed Dansili.
The one dubious statistic Frankel carried around with him for years was his winless record in the Breeders’ Cup, starting out 0-for-38. That streak ended in 2001 when he saddled Squirtle Squirt to win the Penske Auto Center Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I). He would go on to win five more Breeders’ Cup events—the 2002 Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) with his own Starine, the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) with Ghostzapper, 2005 Filly & Mare Turf with Intercontinental, 2007 Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) with Ginger Punch, and 2008 Sentient Flight Group Filly & Mare Sprint with Ventura. Frankel did not attend the 2007 Breeders’ Cup, remaining at home, where he was attending to his beloved Happy, who was critically ill.
Frankel always remained optimistic about his winless streak in the Breeders’ Cup, believing it was only a matter of time that it would come to an end. One morning at Saratoga in 2001, Frankel was walking down his shed and stopped in front of one of the stalls. He pointed out the dark bay horse with his head over the webbing. “I just got this horse, and I’m gonna win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with him,” he said. That horse was Squirtle Squirt, whom Frankel had just gotten from owner David Lanzman.
Frankel’s barn at Saratoga was a meeting place every morning for horsemen. Almost every jockey and his agent stopped by, as well as reporters, exercise riders, and backstretch workers, to talk about everything from sports, politics, handicapping, race strategy, and racing in general. Frankel was never lacking an opinion on whatever subject was being discussed.
Among his regular visitors was Louis Lazzinnaro, owner of the popular Saratoga restaurant Sergio’s, with whom Frankel was partners in Vineyard Haven, along with Major League manager Joe Torre. After winning the 2008 Hopeful and Champagne Stakes (both gr. I), Frankel, the majority partner, sold the colt to Sheikh Mohammed for a staggering $12 million.
To demonstrate how well Frankel knew the sport and his own horses, after winning the 2001 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) with Aptitude, who crushed his opponents by 10 lengths, Frankel, instead of being overjoyed by his colt’s impressive victory, was fearful he had won by too big a margin, having to come back in three weeks in the Classic. While most trainers would have gone into the Classic with great optimism, Frankel went in with trepidation. Sure enough, Aptitude made a big move on the turn but came up empty in the stretch.
Frankel loved the competition and loved winning. In fact, he hated losing and would often brood following a loss. Although the racing world was rooting for Funny Cide to win the Belmont Stakes and sweep the Triple Crown in 2003, Frankel was determined to beat him with Empire Maker, a son of one of his favorite fillies, Toussaud. He always felt Empire Maker should have won the Triple Crown.
“All this pre-race bull don’t mean a thing,” he said to jockey Jerry Bailey the day before the race. “If he beats us, he beats us. What are you gonna do? But we’ll see who’s the better horse.”
After Funny Cide had worked five furlongs in a blistering :574⁄5 three days before the Belmont, Frankel was all smiles. “Forget him; he’s done,” he said. “He needed that like he needed a hole in the head.”
Following Empire Maker’s victory, Frankel said, “I wanted this so much for the horse. Redemption—they taught me a new word today.”
Leaving the Trustees Room, he began to reflect on his relationship with Abdullah and how a Jewish kid from Brooklyn could hook up with a Saudi Arabian prince and have the success they've had.
Back at the barn, the softer side of Frankel emerged at the sight of his horse. “You did something important today, boy,” he said while patting Empire Maker on the neck. “Bigger and better things now, right?”
That was Bobby Frankel. Perhaps Ingordo-Shirreffs summed him up best: “He was a winner his whole life, and he was a winner right to the end.”