Missing BobbyComment Email Print Share By Claire Novak
Special to ESPN.com
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- It was quiet this summer on the Oklahoma Oval, and no throngs of horsemen gathered outside Barn 72. This used to be a meeting place, one of the first stops a Turf writer would make in the Saratoga mornings. You could speak to top jockeys before morning works, touch base with ambitious agents hoping to get mounts, even run into other trainers coming by just to shoot the breeze.
No longer. Bobby Frankel was gone.
The assistants were characteristically mum. Ask about a racehorse, they were glad to share information. Ask about their boss and the answer was indefinite -- "We don't know nothing." Through the swirl of racetrack rumors, it became clear that Frankel, 68, had been kept away from the track due to a reoccurring battle with leukemia. His prognosis wasn't good.
He normally spent the season in Saratoga, and early in the summer the writers held out hope that the Hall of Fame trainer would reappear. But this year Frankel didn't leave his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and his presence was sorely missed. From 21 starters at the Spa, his barn sent out only two winners.
He had been fourth in the standings the year before, had taken four of the track's great Grade Is -- the Forego with First Defence, the Go for Wand and Personal Ensign with Ginger Punch, and the Hopeful with Vineyard Haven. But as the 2009 season went on, although his horses continued to train under his supervision via phone, he gradually dispersed them to other trainers.
Even as recently as the Nov. 6-7 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, Frankel's presence was missed and remarked upon as his defending champ Ventura, winner of the 2008 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, missed the 2009 edition by 1¼ lengths to Informed Decision. The Frankel barn, always marking up a strong success rate with the ladies, sent out Visit to finish fourth in the Filly & Mare Turf and Proviso, also fourth, in the Ladies' Classic.
Frankel was not there that weekend; he watched the races from his hospital room. And somehow his absence, six months away from the industry, reinforced what the Turf writers knew all along. That sooner or later, the end would come, and everything everyone had been waiting to say would have to be said in remembrance.
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Bobby Frankel, born July 9, 1941, in Brooklyn, N.Y., died early on the morning of Nov. 16, 2009. "Peacefully at his home," the brief report from Blood-Horse read, and at news outlets across the nation, journalists began to pull statistics and clips about his greatness.
Hall of Fame member, inducted in 1995.
Five-time Eclipse Award winner as the nation's outstanding trainer.
Thirty training titles to his credit among tracks on both coasts -- in Southern California and New York.
The man who channeled the talents of 10 national champions, including 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper.
Six Breeders' Cup victories to his credit.
A Classic score in the 2003 Belmont Stakes (Empire Maker).
And even in his final year, conditioner of four Grade I winners in six Grade I victories -- Ventura, Champs Elysees, Midships and Stardom Bound. It was a sad day for racing.
But the Turf writers who knew him dug deeper into the reservoirs of memory, paying tribute to a man with a "quick wit, a fiery temper, and a sense of humor … but well-known for his soft spot for his horses, particularly fillies, as well as his pet dogs." (Steve Andersen, The Daily Racing Form)
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Dave Grening first covered New York racing for The Form during Belmont's fall meet of 1998. His first summer at Saratoga, and his first exposure to a daily beat with Frankel, came in 1999. He quickly learned that to deal with the edgy trainer was an art form in itself.
"You had to know what you were coming to ask, you had to be prepared when you went to see Frankel," Grening said. "If you were just asking willy-nilly questions from the top of your head, he'd give you a one- or two-word answer -- 'yes,' 'no,' 'he's OK,' that type -- and you wouldn't have anything to write. You had to come up with a legitimate question, know the horse you wanted to ask about, know about the race the horse was running in, and have an idea of how you thought his horse fit in so then he could school you on whether you were right or wrong."
Although Frankel was based in California, his New York string established itself as a force to be reckoned with, including a 2003 run of 25 Grade I wins that came mostly in the Empire State. Through the victories -- which, for Frankel, seemed to come along more often than defeats -- Grening was there.
"His barn was one of the first stops you had to make, when he had all those good horses," he remembered. "He was all about what he did -- racing, planning, strategizing -- and all about the horses."
"The thing about Bobby that made him such a great trainer was this incredible affection he had for animals," recalled The Blood-Horse's Steve Haskin. "He was so in tune to them, basically his dogs and his horses encompassed his entire life."
Haskin remembers seeing Frankel watch his horses as they left his barn at Saratoga, his faithful Australian shepherd Happy, and later Ginger, at his side. He remembers the affection Frankel had for his runners and the way he looked at them when they went out to the track -- with a sense of pride and respect.
"There was that warmth to him that most people never saw," Haskin said. "And when his horses won, it was like his own child had gone out and done something magnificent. These horses were his children. He was a great guy to be around, he really was."
Equine photographer Barbara Livingston also remembered Frankel with fondness. Initially frightened by his brusque behavior, she eventually came to recognize his softer side.
"After the 2001 Alabama Stakes, a friend of mine once forced me to ask Bobby if he'd pose with his winner, Flute," Livingston recalled. "He seemed eager. He held her close and rubbed her face and smiled toward her -- such love, adoration -- he was smitten by her and, I learned, by all of his horses."
Frankel posed again for Livingston with Sightseek in 2004 and, at Saratoga last year, with Ginger Punch.
"We asked him about her," she said. "He said that while Ginger Punch wasn't the most talented horse he'd ever trained, she tried as hard as any mare could. He spoke of how much he admired her and of her great race on a picture-perfect Saratoga afternoon. He then spoke of politics and of life, and we laughed, we clung on every word. That was a good day."
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During the last few weeks of Belmont's spring/summer meet of 2009, Daily News reporter Jerry Bossert put a call in to Frankel regarding one of his runners. The horse came from off the pace and took it going away, an impressive victory. The talk was all business; they discussed the race and the horse's future. But Bossert couldn't help thinking how much the trainer sounded like he always does, how he didn't sound sick at all. He couldn't help imagining that Frankel could be back outside that Saratoga shedrow sometime soon.
Now, faced with the news they felt coming, those who knew him here will mourn and feel slightly lost. They'll pass Barn 72 next summer and a new trainer, new horses will be there. It just won't feel the same.
As everyone remembers, Frankel was a profoundly private man. As anyone who knew him will tell you, overwhelming sympathy from hundreds is the last thing he would have desired. And perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, the simplest words are the most eloquent, when spoken from the heart. That is how he would like to be remembered.
"I'll always be grateful to him for his kindness toward us and for his love of the game and his horses" Livingston said. "It is impossible to look at Ventura's face, or Flute's, or Sightseek's, and not see Frankel reflected therein."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.