America mourns top trainer Frankel

'King of claimers' dies after rising from Brooklyn boyhood to work for Khalid Abdullah
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The Independent Online

If its grim final months proved misfortune to be equally indiscriminate, the life of Bobby Frankel at least nourished the conviction – so precious to his compatriots – that opportunity is universal. One of the great careers in Turf history was an American paradigm, taking Frankel from a tough immigrant precinct of Brooklyn into the Hall Of Fame.

Indeed his death on Monday, aged 68, after several months fighting leukemia, renewed an alarmed sense that Frankel might have been too much of an outsider to have made the grade over here. In America, you can find yourself a horse, hire a stall in a communal barn, and take your turn on the track every morning. Anyone can have a go. But few, it goes without saying, end up quite like this.

Frankel won 3,654 races and five Eclipse Awards, and only Wayne Lukas exceeds his career earnings. His 25 Grade One winners in 2003 set a world record, and the following year he produced perhaps the best of all his champions, Ghostzapper in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Perhaps only Martin Pipe has achieved so much here, starting from nowhere. The young Frankel was a chancer who would go to the candy store in Far Rockaway every evening to get the first edition of Daily Racing Form, so that he could spend the night figuring out bets for the next day.

But he came to see his very lack of privilege as an advantage. "You don't get things set in your mind, ideas you grew up with," he said. "You make your own judgements. I've heard things at the racetrack that have been passed down from era to era that are pure bullshit."

His first break was getting his hands on a racetrack pass, through a friend. "That way, I saved three dollars a day on parking and admission," he told me once. "So I could bet three dollars. I was just bumming around, parking cars at beach clubs in summer, stuff like that. But the horses would go to Florida in winter, so I had to make some money, somehow – gambling, hanging around, getting to know everybody, walking hots."

The hotwalker cools down a horse after exercise, walking round and round the barn, the ultimate hamster's wheel for the guy going nowhere. Frankel had lasted one day at college. "I got into a fight, knew I didn't belong, and got the hell out," he shrugged. His instinct for independence, as ever, proved a shrewd one. One night he returned from the track and threw $20,000 over the bed. His mother thought he had robbed a bank.

"Then some fool gave me a horse to train," he recalled. "I had no horses in the blood, except maybe for the fact that my grandfather was in the Russian cavalry. Learning on the job, that's how it was – just watching, paying attention. But what I did know, from the very beginning, was how to run them in the right spots. As a gambler, I sort of had a feel for where they could win."

Sure enough, he soon became known as "king of the claimers", and gradually broke into the big time. When he first arrived in California, winning at a clip of one-in-three, they tested everything he ran. He ended up training Khalid Abdullah's entire North American string, notably Empire Maker to win the 2003 Belmont. In the words of a Juddmonte statement: "He could never, ever have been termed a follower, but good people followed him and we were privileged to be in their midst." Abdullah's American racing manager, Garrett O'Rourke, told Blood Horse: "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."

America can overstate its claims as a land of opportunity, but there is no arguing with the fact that a cantankerous Jewish kid from Brooklyn ended up training for a Saudi prince. Superficially, he could seem more comfortable with horses, or dogs, than with men. According to Eddie Delahoussaye, the jockey: "If you didn't know him, he could be a jerk. You had to know him off the track. He was very gracious, but wouldn't let everybody know that. He did a lot of things behind the scenes that people don't know. He was very generous, very good to his help."

His overall legacy, however, is the one condensed by Chad Brown, a former assistant who now trains himself: "He proved you don't have to grow up on a farm or be somebody's kid to make it." To that extent, the last word belongs to Frankel himself. "I believe if you work hard enough, the opportunities come along," he said. "I've seen down the years everybody gets a chance. It's just a question of grabbing it when it shows up."

Turf account: Chris McGrath


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