The Ghost and Mr. Frankel

Bobby Frankel not only was a trainer, owner, and breeder, he was a darn good handicapper, a skill he developed studying the old Morning Telegraph as a kid growing up in Brooklyn. And it was his handicapping skills that won him many a race as a trainer. Unlike the majority of trainers from the 1960s, when he got started, Frankel came from the streets and he trained from the streets.

He followed the Ragozin Sheets and could be seen most days in his office handicapping an upcoming race in which one of his horses would be participating. He knew exactly how his horses stacked up in a particular race -- who were the horses to beat, how much speed was in the race, how big a part the weight spread would play, and where his horse should be under the scenario he had mapped out.

For Frankel, it was all about winning, and he looked for every possible advantage. He was skilled at mind games and would often voice his opinion regarding weight assignments quite vociferously, partly to express his displeasure and partly to intimidate racing secretaries who were well aware he would not hesitate to scratch his horse, no matter how low the odds. He would scratch his horse over the difference of one pound. Every Frankel tirade was like a well-orchestrated pool shot designed to set him up for the next shot.

But as cocky as Frankel could be, often assuring a victory, he was not afraid to seek advice from those he respected. His mind operated like a computer, always absorbing and calculating information, and he could change his plans at the drop of a hat, depending on what the computer was registering at that moment.

Frankel was far from a saint, and he’d be the first to admit it, but he sure was his own person and one of the sport’s most colorful characters. It is safe to say he liked his dogs and his horses more than he liked most people.

When Frankel split his stable at the beginning of the decade, keeping most of his top horses at Belmont Park, he completely dominated racing in the Big Apple, winning 26 of NYRA’s 39 grade I stakes over a three-to-four-year period, a mind-boggling statistic.

The 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic was a race Frankel wanted to win badly. He was running his horse of a lifetime, Ghostzapper, and although the lightly raced colt had never been a mile and a quarter, Frankel firmly believed there wasn’t a horse in America who could touch him, whether it was at six furlongs or 10 furlongs.

And the speed figure gurus felt the same way. Len Friedman of the Ragozin Sheets called him “the most consistently fast horse of all time.” Thoro-Graph’s Jerry Brown said, “To run as fast as he did in three consecutive races in essentially unheard of.” Turf writer Dick Jerardi, who compiles the Beyer Speed Figures, wrote in his column: “Ghostzapper is officially the fastest horse since Daily Racing Form began publishing Beyer Speed Figures in 1992.”

The morning before the Woodward Stakes, Ghostzapper’s regular exercise rider, Nuno Santos, who also galloped Fusaichi Pegasus for Neil Drysdale and Azeri for Laura De Seroux, jumped off the colt and said to Frankel, “Galloping him is better than sex.”

As the Breeders’ Cup drew near, Santos couldn’t contain his excitement, because he knew what was to come. Even when Ghostzapper drew the 1-post, leaving him few options other than going for the lead, Santos was unfazed. “Drawing the rail doesn’t matter; wire-to-wire,” he said. “Believe me, no worries. This horse is unreal, a freak, and everyone is going to see it on Saturday. You’re going to see a Secretariat type of race. I can feel him getting stronger every day, and I’ve never been as confident in a horse as I am with this guy, and that includes Azeri (who also was entered in the Classic). It’s another world. They’re going to have to wait years and years to see another one like this.”

Frankel had been waiting impatiently for the Classic since Ghostzapper’s gutsy victory over Saint Liam in the Woodward. “If I don’t screw him up and he goes into the Breeders’ Cup as good as he is now, he can’t lose. It’ll be no contest; that’s all I’m telling you. That’s how good this horse is.”

Despite the presence of Pleasantly Perfect, winner of the previous year’s BC Classic and that year’s Dubai World Cup; Birdstone, winner of the Belmont Stakes and Travers; Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year; Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who was coming off a victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup; and Roses in May, winner of five straight, including the Whitney and Kentucky Cup Classic, Frankel was convinced none of them could beat Ghostzapper.

If he had one concern it was drawing the rail and being forced to go to the lead. Frankel didn’t mind Ghostzapper being in front, but he knew the only thing that could possibly get him beat was being pushed into suicidal fractions. And he felt the only horse capable of doing that was Roses in May, a pure speed horse who could carry his speed. The Whitney was the only race that year in which he failed to get the early lead, and in that race, he forced the pace through torrid fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:08 4/5 and still won. In the Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows, he set fast fractions and drew clear, covering the 1 1/8 miles in a track-record 1:46 3/5.

Roses in May’s trainer, Dale Romans, had his strategy all planned. He felt if he had jockey John Velazquez gun Roses in May to the lead, establishing a clear lead while setting stiff fractions, he could kill off everyone near him by taking them out of their game plan.

But after Ghostzapper drew post 1, Azeri post 3, and Roses in May post 6, that plan no longer seemed feasible. The following morning, Romans stood in the trainer’s stand with owner Ken Ramsey watching Roses in May gallop and plotted a new strategy. But his thinking was geared more toward the speedy Azeri than Ghostzapper, who was more of a stalker and had never  been on the lead.

“Azeri has got to go, and we have the opportunity to make decisions now,” Romans told Ramsey. “John will be able to dictate what he does.”

That sounded good to Ramsey, who replied, “We’re obviously in the catbird seat and can sit and watch what they do. The absolute biggest thing for us is make sure the horse is well within himself and we don’t get involved in some speed duel down the backstretch.”

Romans knew that Ghostzapper was the horse to beat and said he didn’t want to go “eyeball to eyeball” with him, but “wanted to let him know we’re there,” figuring maybe Ghostzapper would “get aggravated and we can run him down.”

Frankel, unaware of that conversation, knew he had to work on Ramsey and convince him not to go hell-bent-for leather with Roses in May and cost both horses the race. He didn’t care if Roses in May ran with Ghostzapper or stalked him. He just wanted a reasonable pace. If he could get away with a  :47 half, he knew there wasn’t a horse alive who could catch Ghostzapper.

So, two days before the race, Frankel saw Ramsey outside Barn B2 and decided this was the perfect time to plant the seeds of his strategy in Ramsey’s head. There were few people who could sound as convincing as Frankel. He truly believed he was always right, and he felt it was his job to convince other people of that fact. He could do it in a soft, seductive, authoritative manner if it called for that approach or he could do it obstreperously at the upper levels of his distinctive high-pitched screech.

In Ramsey’s case, it called for the soft approach. After all, Frankel trained for Ramsey, which is why the owner was at his barn – to discuss his Breeders’ Cup Mile starter Nothing to Lose, whom Frankel had saddled to back-to-back wins in the grade II Fourstardave Handicap at Saratoga and grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.

When Frankel spoke, you listened. So, Ramsey was all ears after Frankel took him to a nice quiet spot outside the barn, sat down on the concrete manure pit, and began his little talk.

“If we lay first and second and the jockeys keep them slow and don’t kill each other trying for the lead, they’ll finish one-two,” Frankel assured Ramsey. “You know what I’m saying? If they’re not stupid and they stay cool, we’ll be one-two.”

“So, you’re boxing them (in the exactas), huh?” Ramsey replied, breaking into his familiar broad grin and booming laugh. “In other words, how fast we go on the backstretch will dictate what happens in the homestretch. What about Azeri?”

“I don’t think Azeri is going to be there,” Frankel said. “She can’t run with these two. Both our horses will get the mile and a quarter and we got two smart jockeys (Javier Castellano on Ghostzapper and Velazquez). If they sit, they finish one-two. I’m telling you, that’s the race; it’s that simple. Look, I gotta go (to the front) from the one post. But if they let us get away with a half in :47, the race is over. It’ll be you and me, and let the best horse win.”

This pretty much had been Ramsey’s and Roman’s strategy, but Frankel’s constant assurances that they would finish one-two removed any doubts in Ramsey’s mind. What was important was drumming it into the heads of their jockeys.

“That’s the best shot we got,” Ramsey said. “And if I outrun you or you outrun me, we’re still talking about $800,000 for second. That’s nothing to sneeze at.”

Although it sounded enticing to Ramsey, Frankel had no intention of finishing second. He knew if Ramsey, Romans, and Velazquez let him slow the pace down, he’d have his first Classic victory. He also knew that they were well aware this was Roses in May’s only shot to win, and if he couldn’t win he’d be second. After all, Bobby Frankel said so.

This basically was two guys who were confident they could win and making sure they didn’t cost each other the race. It was typical Frankel, taking the initiative and drumming it into the other’s head.

On the morning of the Breeders’ Cup, expectations in Frankel’s barn were high, with six solid Breeders’ Cup starters. Ghostzapper, as was his habit, was sprawled out in his stall, something he did every morning at 9:30 like clockwork. When his groom, Carlos Quevedo, went into his stall to trim the edge of his mane behind his ears, Ghostzapper didn’t even bother getting up, preferring to just lie there while Quevedo snipped away.

By the time the Classic rolled around, however, Frankel was dejected and frustrated, having seen his other five Breeders’ Cup starters all finish out of the money. Ghostzapper was his last shot to turn a disastrous day into one of jubilation.

It’s not easy in a horse race to have your script played out to perfection, but it was as if Frankel had seen it all in a crystal ball and made it happen just that way. Ghostzapper went to the lead, with Roses in May dogging him from the outside. Azeri was right in the hunt, with Pat Day content to sit back behind the two leaders. Castellano and Velazquez played their role perfectly and slowed the pace down with an opening half in :47. Right on the button. Frankel had his :47 half and now it was all up to Ghostzapper, who maintained a half-length lead over Roses in May, as Azeri began to drop back.

When Castellano asked him, he opened the lead up to a length with a strong :24 flat quarter. In the stretch, Roses in May was unable to keep up, but, just as Frankel had promised Ramsey, he was well clear of the others and was never in any danger of losing second. Ghostzapper, meanwhile, stormed home with a :23 4/5 final quarter to win by three lengths, and his time of 1:59.02 broke the stakes record set by Skip Away in 1997. Roses in May finished second, four lengths ahead of Pleasantly Perfect.

Ramsey and Romans had to feel good knowing they had been beaten by a superior horse; the fastest ever according to the speed gurus and one of the best seen in America in several years.

As Frankel approached the winner’s circle he ran into Ramsey, who was gracious in defeat.

“Well, that’s what you said would happen, and that’s what we did,” said Ramsey, who had also finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf with the Romans-trained Kitten’s Joy. “We ran our game plan. We laid off your flank, and if you had backed up we would have tried to take the lead. It didn’t work out that way; my hat’s off to you.”

Back at the barn, as Ghostzapper picked on some alfalfa and then tore into his hay rack, Romans stopped by with his son to offer his congratulations. “It was a big day and I’m proud of our team,” he said to Frankel. “I told my wife, ‘I made about $150,000 today and I’ve got the blues; something’s wrong with that.’ Great job with him. I know it hasn’t been easy.”

Recently, Romans reflected on the race. “Those were two horses who could run fast and keep on going,” he said. “That was a special field of horses behind us, but they just got tired chasing us. Our horse ran a great race, but Ghostzapper was just too good.”

Roses in May would have his day, or night, the following March when he easily captured the $6-million Dubai World Cup.

As for Frankel, he had put the finishing touches on what was to become a Horse of the Year campaign for Ghostzapper. It had been an exhausting day, but there was still one more piece of unfinished business. Frankel had his up-and-coming grass horse, Leroidesanimaux, running in the grade III Morvich Handicap at Santa Anita. He and his staff and his wife at the time, Bonita, all gathered around the TV in the office. After the 4-year-old Brazilian-bred closed fast to win going away, Frankel broke into his familiar Cheshire cat grin, turned to Bonita, and said, “OK, let’s go home.” 

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