Bobby Frankel was not for everybody. I was crazy about him.
Just months ago a writer for this magazine begged off a story because it entailed calling him. I knew the feeling. One of my first assignments here was calling Bobby after his brilliant trainee Mazel Trick suffered a career-ending injury. His reputation as a man-eater was widespread, and I figured my career might just end before it began. My heart was beating through my chest when I made the call. He picked up right away, gave me a straight-forward description of what happened, and away we went.
There was no better oasis on the backstretch—be it Hollywood Park, Saratoga, Belmont Park, or Churchill Downs—than Frankel’s barn. He was the smartest guy at his job, and whoever completed that exacta was 31 lengths behind. If you wanted to learn something about this game, you dutifully took a seat in his office and watched him handicap a race or fill out a training chart or pour over speed figures or listened to him explain the idiosyncracies of a racetrack or tell a jock’s agent why he’d better go look for another client. If you couldn’t stand a regular barrage of f-bombs or his questioning of why this or that wasn’t done better, you went somewhere else. But you weren’t better served in doing so.
That was the thing about Frankel—a dumb question or badly-timed comment could set him off. Whereas others are inclined to gloss over anything and move on, Frankel could intimidate. But if you made it past that and showed you had something to give back, the rewards were astounding. Each spring he would lead me out of his office at Hollywood Park and walk me through his barn, which was akin to touring the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
A star peered out from every stall. “This is so-and-so; he’s gonna run in a stakes here next week,” Frankel would say. “This one is going to win the Test at Saratoga; this one’s gonna win the Arlington Million.” Up and down we went. As Muhammad Ali said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you do it.”
As with anyone successful in the training profession, many accused him—none to his face—of taking an edge outside the rulebook. To that I must admit I just don’t know. But go ahead and try gaining the access described above to the shedrow of any other nationwide super-trainer working today. And good luck to you.
It was more than just horses with Frankel. He loved talking politics, and during presidential campaigns he devoured the nightly cable news shows, constantly in wonderment at the foibles of those with whom he disagreed. He delved into human nature, fascinated with the reasons why people thought the way they did. He relished the diversion, after decades of devoting himself to horses, of being able to exercise his brain and expound on his opinions of other things.
And it helped him to relax. On the day Medaglia d’Oro would contest the Preakness (gr. I), Steve Haskin and I sat on bales of hay in Frankel’s barn outside the horse’s stall—and talked about New York delicatessen food non-stop for hours. A Sports Illustrated reporter happened by in midstream hoping to get a story on the horse and stood there for an hour in amazement, unable to break through the debate of knishes versus blintzes or who had the best pastrami sandwich in the city. No opinions would be changed here, certainly not Frankel’s, whose parents made their living as caterers back in Brooklyn. We were all stunned when the announcement came to bring the Preakness horses out to be saddled, the afternoon having melted away in playful banter that served all of us well,
If Frankel chose not to share that side of him with everyone, well, those of us who are private by nature will understand, and those that aren’t, won’t. He died the way he lived—privately and with dignity.
And he loved his animals—his horses and his dogs. He refused to travel from California to Monmouth Park two years ago to watch Ginger Punch win the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) because one of his dogs was dying, and he wouldn’t leave her. It must have broken his heart to leave them now.
Bobby Frankel wasn’t for everybody. I was crazy about him.
Lenny Shulman is the features editor for The Blood-Horse