I never met Bobby Frankel. Never said a word to him, though as he came and went from the racing office at Saratoga, from which he often watched his horses race, it was always sort of temping to say, “Hi, Bobby,” as if we were old friends. He was ubiquitous, and so familiar that it seemed like, really, don’t we know each other?
But we didn’t. His gruffness was legendary, documented recently by Karen Johnson in her book The Training Game. One morning at his Saratoga barn, Johnson asked Jose Cuevas, Frankel’s long time assistant, what Frankel was like to work for.
[Cuevas] was at a loss for words—perhaps because his boss was standing nearby.
“How can I put it?” Cuevas pondered. “How can I put it, Bobby?”
Frankel ignored the question.
As the exchange continued, Frankel asked Cuevas about a filly who had gone to the monitoring barn.
“Is someone over there with her?” Frankel asked and when given an affirmative
response, continued his questioning. “What guy?”
“Bobby, the same guy that goes over there with every horse, every day,” Cuevas said with a hint of exasperation in his voice.
Cuevas then smiled wryly, as if to say, “Here’s your answer to what it’s like to work for him.”
If his gruffness was legendary, then so was his gentleness. In 2005, when I was following racing year-round for the first time, Frankel created a memory that I will never forget. It was after the Beldame that year, Sightseek’s last race.
From Jason Diamos in the New York Times:
Bobby Frankel’s eyes misted up in the winner’s circle at Belmont Park
yesterday after Sightseek, the mare Frankel said was the best he had ever
trained, finished her career with a dominating victory in the Beldame
Stakes. Sightseek ran her record at Belmont to 6 for 6 with a two-and-three-quarters-length victory over Society Selection.
“I wanted her to win and go out on top,” Frankel said, wiping away tears.
And from a NYRA report published in the Blood-Horse:
“I worried about her,” said winning trainer Bobby Frankel, failing to hold
back tears. “She’s going home safely. I wanted her to win and go out on top. I
said months ago that this was going to be her last race. The Juddmonte
people questioned me about it, but I told them I wanted this to be it.”
Such outpourings of emotion were apparently not uncommon, and his absence from the 2007 Breeders’ Cup because of his ill dog has become an exemplar of how the man felt about animals, of the softness beneath the toughness. Steven Haskin in the Blood-Horse notes that Frankel requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Old Friends equine retirement home, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, and CANTER.
At the 2008 Met Mile, Frankel was spotted on the third floor of the clubhouse, standing up near the doors, behind the last row of seats. He had two horses entered that day, one of them First Defense in the feature. I didn’t dare approach him, but Ernie Munick did, and I’ll bet that today he’s thinking about the conversation he and Frankel had, and this result. Apparently, Frankel could not have been more accommodating.
Reading Jay Privman’s obituary of Frankel in the Daily Racing Form, I nearly started to laugh—come on! He won all those races? That many times? Knowing how good he was is one thing; looking at that list of stakes wins is quite another. It seems inconceivable that one man could have won so many races, in one lifetime.
I didn’t know Frankel; I never spoke to him. Nonetheless, for someone of my racing generation, his absence will be keenly felt on every big racing day for quite some time. Earlier today, Jessica Chapel tweeted, “I’ll always think of him at Saratoga.” Certainly, the racing office there won’t be the same without him, and neither will racing.