Competitive spirit drove Frankel

December 08, 2009 5:05 PM
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HOF trainer hated to lose at anything

"We must scrunch or be scrunched." – Charles Dickens, from Our Mutual Friend, 1865.

Bobby Frankel hated to lose at anything. In his world, be it training horses or cashing a bet, winning was everything. An unwavering bolt of competitive spirit empowered his iconic success.

Frankel rose from a Brooklyn renegade to a Hall of Fame trainer before he died at the age of 68 on Nov. 16. He started from scratch, beginning his career as a hot walker at Belmont Park and Aqueduct in the mid-1960s, and started training in New York in 1966.

Frankel moved to California in 1972. He was dubbed "King of the Claimers" for his knack of developing lower echelon horses into stakes winners, and eventually ruled racing with blue blood stock mainly from principal owner Prince Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte Farms. In addition to winning 30 training titles, five Eclipse Awards as the nation’s outstanding trainer and gaining induction into racing’s Hall of Fame in 1995, Frankel conditioned 10 national champions, including Horse of the Year Ghostzapper in 2004.

Call it a fear of failure or an unwavering urge to achieve that compelled him to attain his status, but it was apparent in every strain of his DNA.

Nothing makes that more evident than an episode which reached its apex at the start of the Del Mar meet in 1999. Six months earlier, corpulent jockey agent Jim Pegram, who weighed 320 pounds at the time, had bet Frankel $1,000 that he could lose 50 pounds by opening day of Del Mar just over 10 years ago.

The legend of the lost took several tumultuous twists and turns before Pegram hit the scales at the official weigh-in, and the photo sign was up for an interminable amount of time before the bet was settled.

"This shows just how competitive Bobby was," recalled Pegram, the father of agent Brad Pegram, and one of several Pegrams in racing, including prominent owner Mike Pegram.

"I bet Bobby I’d lose 50 pounds," Pegram said. "Losing the first 30 pounds was easy. But I really had to struggle to lose the last 20, and when I got to that point, the day before the deadline, I was right on the money at 270 pounds, so I went out and celebrated. But I celebrated too much, and gained a couple of pounds.

"Now I’ve got to fast for 24 hours, and when I finally get on the scale in the jocks’ room, I know I’m close, so to be safe, I take my shoes off. Bobby wasn’t at the weigh-in. He was training a horse. (Agent) Scotty McClellan called him and told him I made the weight, but Bobby wasn’t going down without a fight. He asked if I had all my clothes on when I got on the scale, and Scotty told him I didn’t have my shoes on. So Bobby claimed foul, and I had to go back and re-weigh with him there.

"I knew I was on the borderline, so I took my socks off, too, because I needed every ounce I could get. Anyway, I made it. So Bobby says, ‘All right, you won.’ He walks out of the jocks’ room, and I doubled-back and put my socks away, but Bobby doubled back, too. He figured I was up to something, and he caught me putting my socks on. I had to convince him that they didn’t weigh two pounds, and that’s what I made it by."

Despite a gruff exterior and an attitude that flirted with being flippant, Frankel was a man with a heart, especially to those loyal to him, such as Humberto Ascanio, Frankel’s top aide for more than 35 years, who now has full responsibility for the barn.

"This story just shows how much Bobby hated to lose, even if it was a bet with a guy about losing weight," Pegram said. "But here’s the funny part. After he paid me, he made me take his entourage out to dinner, and the check came to $800.

"But that was Bobby. I loved the guy."

THE HOMESTRETCH

Hot-riding Joe Talamo is in the Orient this week, first for a Jockey Challenge at Happy Valley in Japan, and Sunday in Hong Kong where he pilots Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner California Flag for trainer Brian Koriner in the $1.8 million Hong Kong Sprint … Former football coach and current ESPN analyst Lou Holtz invented a new word when he recently uttered a hybrid of "unbelievable" and "incredible," to wit: "… For a freshman, he had an uncredible year." Maybe next time it will be "inbelievable." … And say what you will about Tiger Woods, but his dedication to golf remains unquestioned. On a recent road trip a crony asked him how many girls he had in his room and Tiger yelled, "Four!"