I had always been intimidated by trainer Bobby Frankel until I had the opportunity to spend some time with him in Tokyo in 2001 when he sent Amerman Racing Stable's Lido Palace there for the second running of the Japan Cup Dirt.
With just that one horse to care for in Japan, he was more a tourist than a horseman that week. Unmarried at the time, he brought a former assistant trainer, Fred Cogan, as his guest (the Japan Racing Association allows each trainer to bring a spouse or guest at the JRA's expense), and the three of us wound up palling around for much of the week, talking more about life than horses.
The lobby of the Keio Plaza Hotel was our gathering place, where it seemed there always was a wedding going on or one about to happen. Frankel was fascinated by the fact so many Japanese couples had Western-style weddings, and on the drive to the track one morning he opened a discussion about religion, wondering how a Buddhist society yielded so many weddings that looked like Christian ceremonies in America.
“What religion are you?” I asked, knowing that he was born Jewish.
“I'm one of those…what do you call them…they don't really believe in anything.”
“Atheist?” Cogan asked.
“No, no,” he said. “I'm just not really sure….you know…aga…aga-something.”
“Agnostic?” I said.
“Yeah, that's it,” he said. “Aga-nostic. I really don't know what to believe. How can anyone really know, you know what I mean?”
The discussion continued about religion and prayer, and Frankel volunteered that there was only one time in his career that he asked God for some help in winning a horse race, when Keeper Hill ran in the 1999 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland. The filly was owned by John and Alice Chandler of Mill Ridge Farm and trainer Shug McGaughey. “I made a deal with God,” he said, “that if Keeper Hill won that race I would donate all of my winnings to charity. He kept his end of the bargain and so did I.”
I didn't ask Frankel why he chose that particular horse and race to pray to a God he wasn't sure existed, but I had my suspicions. Shortly after Keeper Hill had won, there were rumors that the filly was given a milkshake before the race (a loading of bicarbonates), something that might not have gone over very well with Alice Chandler, who had been leading the fight to tighten Kentucky's then-lax medication rules.
“Keeper Hill…wasn't there some story about her getting a milkshake before the Spinster?” I asked Frankel. He didn't say yes or no, but his answer told me all I needed to know. “It wasn't illegal,” he said, stretching that last word out in a way that only a native New Yorker could.
He was right. Milkshakes weren't prohibited by the Kentucky Racing Commission until 2001 (they were banned in every other state, except Louisiana), and there were many people, including a number of veterinarians, who felt they were good for horses, since it was a natural substance that prevented lactic acid buildup and kept a horse from tiring, which is when many injuries occur. Frankel, if he did have a milkshake administered to Keeper Hill, didn't break any rules.
Frankel admitted during the course of another conversation that he would use every legal edge available to win a race, as long as it didn't do any harm to the horse. While in Japan that year, he checked with JRA officials to see what type of racing plates could be used for Lido Palace. “If I lost by that much,” he said, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart, “and didn't take advantage of whatever was legal, I wouldn't be able to sleep.”
Lido Palace ran a clunker in Japan, finishing far behind Kurofune in a mystifying performance. I don't think Frankel slept very well that night, and it wasn't because of jet lag. Over breakfast the next morning, he said he thinks he messed up when he tightened the girth on Lido Palace, cinching it so tight the horse might have had trouble breathing properly.
Frankel was as competitive as anyone in the sport, celebrating the wins in style but also suffering through the losses. He was always looking for an edge, but drew the line if the result could be harmful to his horses. During his record-setting year in 2003 when he won 25 Grade 1 races and set a new earnings mark for trainers, rumors ran rampant that he was “juicing” his horses with a blood-doping agent called Epogen.
I called him, told him about the rumors I'd been hearing, and asked if it was true. “How stupid do you think I am?” he said. “I've got the best training job in this business with Juddmonte. You think I would do something to risk that?
“That shit kills horses,” he said. “I don't use any of that stuff–anabolic steroids–anything that's harmful to a horse.”
The loss of Frankel leaves a big void in our sport. He was as colorful as anyone I've ever known. His record of accomplishment speaks for itself and brought him fame around the world, gaining him entry into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
But his love for the horses he trained will punch Frankel's ticket to heaven—if there is such a place. After all, who really knows?
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