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Frankel says the future is now for horse racing's troubles

Dec 30, 2008 5:09 PM
Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

You can take Bobby Frankel out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of Bobby Frankel. Three years from his seventh decade, the 67-year-old Hall of Fame trainer still displays a challenging and gruff countenance and a walk that’s right out of the ‘hood.

But beneath that faux and flip deportment lies a mellow heart that beats with the multi-dimensional street smarts of a world-class horseman. Frankel is the Wizard of Oz of trainers.

With a New Year upon us and racing traveling on a Yellow Brick Road laced with economic and ethical pot holes, who better then to ask about how to vanquish its vexations than the one and only Frankel?

He has won more than 3,500 races in a career that began in 1984. His horses have earned more than $211 million and he has won 30 training titles, including five at Santa Anita, where he is the career leader with 899 victories. Five Eclipse Awards have been bestowed upon him for being the nation’s outstanding trainer.

At the race track, opinions are cheap and as plentiful as lies in a political campaign, but it would be wise to heed to a man of Frankel’s repute. Synthetic surfaces, medication issues, short fields, diminishing handle, slot machines, satellite wagering: Frankel addressed all when I caught up with him at Santa Anita, where he will direct operations for 80 horses ready to run at the 84-day meet that began Dec. 26 and ends April 19.

"For one thing, racing needs more quality races," Frankel said. "The racing office has to make those races go. For my part, stakes horses like Champs Elysees and Zambesi Sun are not going to stud. They will continue to race, because today’s economy dictates it. They’ll make more money racing. If quality horses won’t bring out fans, then we shouldn’t have good horses, just all (bleeping) cheap horses, if you don’t think it’s going to improve the game."

Have no fear. A profane word here and there is just Bobby being Bobby.

The rush to synthetic surfaces has created an industry-wide furor. Troops are mounted on two sides: synthetics or traditional dirt. Critics fired both barrels at Santa Anita last season when its Cushion Track failed to drain properly. But another synthetic manufacturer, Pro-Ride, rode to Santa Anita’s rescue, restoring its main track, and Frankel has given it his unconditional endorsement – at least for now.

"Santa Anita’s track right now is the best I’ve ever raced on," said Frankel, who usually throws compliments around like manhole covers. "That says a lot," Frankel added, "especially considering how much traffic it gets in the morning. You can’t judge a track like Keeneland (with a synthetic surface made by Polytrack), because that meet is only three weeks. I don’t know how many thousands of times horses have been over Santa Anita’s new surface so far, so I would say it’s the best one I’ve been around.

"Now if it holds up the whole meet, I don’t know. We’re usually very fast pinning roses on things, then all of a sudden we get bit in the ass, you know? Like they did at Hollywood (and its Cushion Track, which was well received after it was initially installed last year). It’s a bleeping disaster now."

California has a better chance of electing a Republican president than it does getting slot machines at race tracks, due to the undaunting pressure exerted by the Indian lobby. But just because slots generate more purse money for horsemen at hinterland tracks in West Virginia and New Mexico is not a panacea, Frankel says.

"The handle is higher at the better tracks with the better horses, slots or not," he said. "Quality horses increase the handle. My concern right now is I have good horses to run and I hope the races go. I don’t want to be sitting here waiting a month to run. What if they get hurt?"

Frankel advocates uniform medication and licensing standards throughout racing. "It just makes sense," he said.

It also made sense for him to sell Vineyard Haven, a top prospect for the Kentucky Derby, which Frankel has never won. The winner of the Grade I Hopeful and Champagne stakes earlier this year was purchased by Sheikh Mohammad’s Godolphin Stable for a reported $12 million.

"I don’t have buyer’s remorse," Frankel said. "The horse was great to me, and I hope he wins the Derby, I really do."

The homestretch

Garrett Gomez, $109,014 shy of Jerry Bailey’s 2003 record of $23,354,960 for purse earnings in one year, lost several upper front teeth and suffered a swollen left hand and a gash on his left knee. Back at You veered in and hit the rail, unseating him while on the 2-year-old colt, was in the lead down the stretch during Saturday’s seventh race at Santa Anita.

Gomez, who turns 37 on New Year’s Day, was held overnight for observation at Arcadia Methodist Hospital and later released. Gomez resumed riding on Monday.

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