Bobby Frankel is not a man easily taken by whimsy, yet his is undoubtedly the quaintest story here on the backstretch at Belmont Park this week.
The growling trainer grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and, as a boy, he used to take the ferry ride to Monmouth Park or drive with his folks down the I-95 to Baltimore and Pimlico. This is his 'hood.
In his early twenties Frankel was on the lowest-level production line racing offers, operating as a hotwalker at this track and Aqueduct. In the intervening 40 or so years, he has dragged himself to the other pole of the turf and is accepted as a master conditioner.
As the Breeders' Cup series returns to the Big Apple, it is a beautiful circular story of achievement, a great American story. The serum to this fairytale, however, is provided by none other than the central figure. Saturday and Breeders' Cup XVIII is not particularly special to Bobby Frankel.
"You know the truth, I don't care about all that," he said yesterday. "I'll take it [victory] anywhere, in Kentucky, California, Florida. I just want to win. I don't care where it is. I'm not a romantic person."
Whatever he says, though, this is to be a big day. For by one set of rules, Frankel is the worst trainer this meeting has ever produced. He has saddled 36 runners at racing's Olympics, gaining five seconds, five thirds and precisely no winners. Now, as they say round here, he is trying to "snap the schneid".
"If you look at it, I only started one favourite," Frankel added. "That was Bertrando and he got beaten by Arcangues [the Andre Fabre-trained Classic winner of 1993 at Santa Anita, at 134-1]. He ran well but a freakish thing happened. When he [Arcangues] went by I didn't know who he was. It took me five minutes to find out."
Frankel tells you this from his office in barn No 2 on the Belmont backstretch. He may now live in the exotically named location of Pacific Palisades in California, but the money has not gone to his head.
In fact, it is hard to see where it has gone at all. Bobby is in a fawn jacket and old jeans, and the office with its splintered coat stand and distressed leather sofa has all the elegance of a sixth form common room.
Outside, a largely Hispanic stable staff went swiftly about their work. For Frankel is a perfectionist, and when perfection is not achieved he does not keep the disappointment to himself. He chews his staff.
"I still get a little hot," he said. "I just try to get the job done, so they need my attention once in a while. You hate to yell, but sometimes it's the only way to get to someone."
They say that Frankel is mellowing now that he has just passed 60, but it is more likely that the horses are just winning. He has collected 38 stakes races this year, 13 of them Grade Ones, and is close on $12 million in prize money. Only Bob Baffert is ahead.
There should be a top-up on Saturday when Frankel saddles six runners, all of them fancied. Indeed, it looks too good to be true.
"If I don't win this year I might as well quit," the trainer said. "But there is a danger that everyone thinks I am going to do it. I don't like to hear all that shit. Let me just go about my business. I wish the year was over right now."
You (Juvenile Fillies), Aptitude (Classic) and Flute (Distaff), in that order, are assessed as the most likely. The last-named might even make her flinty trainer emotional. Flute has come to the front of the stall each time she has heard Frankel's voice this week and put her head on his shoulder.
"She's a very sweet filly. You can go in there and hug her, play with her," he said. "She was playing with the zipper on my jacket the other day. If she were a little smaller I'd take her home on a leash. Since I first got her I thought Flute was put on this earth for me to win the Breeders' Cup."
Aptitude, crooked right front leg and all, will probably start favourite for the big enchilada, the Classic. He was second in last year's Kentucky Derby and this season is the winner of his last three races, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup by 10 lengths over Saturday's course and distance. "If he runs like he did last time, I'm in pretty good shape," Frankel said. "They have to run a huge race to beat him."
The trainer will see events unfold, as superstition dictates, from the office of the New York Racing Association secretary Mike Lakow. It now appears that, come Classic time, he will be watching Aptitude battling it out with Fantastic Light rather than Godolphin's other entry, Sakhee.
That is certainly the wish of Frankie Dettori, who was yesterday pinned up against a chain link fence by microphones, biros and camera lenses for the first time this week.
The Italian sat on Fantastic Light and immediately invigorated the world champion. He worked proudly over five furlongs and looked a different horse from the sloth of the weekend. "I liked the way he conducted himself," Dettori said.
"The Turf is there to be taken and I would love to see Sakhee run in that," he added. "All he has to do to win is show up. The Breeders' Cup Turf is still an amazing race and it would be a shame to let that one slip by."Reuse content