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His Is No Mere Claim to Fame

March 21, 1993|JIM MURRAY

Usually, when you think of a horse trainer, you think of a guy in a wool hat and high boots who is a direct descendant of Jesse James or whose grandfather rode with Custer.

He was born in a bunkhouse, and grew up on horseback, riding and roping, and he broke his first mustang at 11. He got to know horses better than people because his nearest neighbor growing up was 10 miles away as the crow flies.

But what if you are born in Brooklyn? How about if the only thing you ever rode was a subway train? What if your nearest neighbor was two feet away and you didn't even have a bicycle? What if the only horses you ever saw were in the movies until you got old enough and then they were on a racetrack?

You would have figured that, to really understand horses, someone in your family had to ride in the Pony Express, not the uptown express.

Horse trainers didn't come from Delancy Street or Flatbush Avenue, they came from south Missouri or west Texas, places where they used horses to rob trains or rustle cattle, where they needed fast animals not to get a silver cup, but to get away.

Bobby Frankel's first horse was not a Shetland or pinto, it was 8-1. Frankel learned about horses the old-fashioned way--he bet on them. You don't have to know about pasterns and stifles, fetlocks and cannon bones to get the exacta, you only need a clock and a Form.

But you get to know horses as well as anybody who spent years sleeping in a barn with them or circling wagon trains on them. At least Frankel did. He learned that they are like the rest of society, cantankerous, argumentative, stubborn, resistant to advice or learning, perverse, temperamental and sometimes not at all willing to do what's expected of them.

Bobby Frankel didn't get to know all this on his first trip to the track, but it was a start. There's a lot of information about a horse in a past-performance chart that you can't always get in a saddle.

His parents took him to his first races. But they were for trotters, and Bobby was scornful. "Too easy to handicap," he snorted.

He was only 17, but he didn't want to bet on anything that pulled a wagon for a living. He wanted a challenge.

Thoroughbreds provided it, all right. Frankel would caddie all morning at the Inwood Country Club to get enough money to go out and match wits with the horses in the afternoon.

Since horses are not very bright, that should be an overmatch because Frankel is. But, he demurs.

"It's not really the horses you have to compete with, it's the other bettors," he says. "Most of them don't have a clue."

Handicapping lost a legend the day Frankel stopped going to the windows. He had no trouble deciphering the hieroglyphics of the Daily Racing Form into information that told him what 10-1 shot should be going off at 6-5.

Of course, horses that should win don't always. But Frankel had his own university education going for him. He didn't need a stock market, he had a tote board.

"I was a kind of a legend at the windows," he says.

One night, a pal of his had to leave a party early. Frankel was intrigued. The festivities were just getting going. The pal explained that he rode a pony at the track, leading post parades, rounding up riderless horses or runaway winners.

Frankel decided he wanted to get a look at a way of life that made going home from a great party early preferable and went with his friend the next morning.

That's how Frankel got to the backside. He's been there ever since. Instead of joining guys named "Bet A Million" or "Lucky" or "Big Julie," he hooked up with guys who were known as "Plain Ben" or "Sunny Jim" or "Mr. Fitz."

"They gave me a badge and my own parking place and I knew I had found a home," he recalls. "I did everything to stay there. I was a hot walker, I rubbed horses. I did everything you do."

Including mucking stalls and going for coffee.

But, mostly, he studied horses. He studied trainers.

"It's complicated, but it's not rocketry," Frankel says.

Finally, trainer Johnny Campo told him, "I can get you a trainer's license. You're ready."

And he was. His first horse was a colt called Pink Rose who was to win three races in a row. His first winner was a Finger Lakes horse called Double Dash.

Frankel had six winners out of his first 12 starters. And it wasn't as if he was getting the Vanderbilt and Whitney stock. He got his $10,000 claimers, the riffraff of the track, in-and-outers, plating horses, inconsistent, indifferent. Bobby made runners out of them.

Some claiming horses are put in a race with price tags dangling because they have shown a positive distaste for winning, if not for running at all.

They are the ne'er-do-wells of the turf. Claimers sometimes have no heart--to say nothing of no speed. The challenge is to build some zeal, some sense of worth back into them. Frankel did this better than anybody.

"I claimed five in one day once," he boasts. "I won a lot of stakes with ex-claiming horses."

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