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BILL DWYRE

Saying their farewells at Hollywood Park

Zenyatta will take one more lap on her victory tour during a weekend event at which trainer Bobby Frankel, who died this month, will be sorely missed.

November 27, 2009|Bill Dwyre
  • Bobby Frankel looks out of his barn at Churchill Downs in 2003.
Bobby Frankel looks out of his barn at Churchill Downs in 2003. (Ed Reinke / Associated Press )

One word sums up perfectly this weekend's Turf Festival of horse racing at Hollywood Park. Bittersweet.

The sweet part is easy. Zenyatta will be in public again.

The retired 5-year-old, a lady who became the ultimate champ with her stirring victory in the recent Breeders' Cup Classic, will parade after the seventh race Sunday.

Exercise rider Steve Willard will bring her up the main straightaway and guide her back across the finish line one more time. As in all of her 14 races in a career that marked her as one of the best ever, no other horse will be in front of her.

She will make one more familiar stop in the winner's circle, and regular jockey Mike Smith will climb aboard. Also expected to be on hand are Zenyatta's owners, Ann and Jerry Moss. Moss, the "M" in Herb Alpert-Moss' A&M Records, produced the 1980 hit album by the Police titled "Zenyatta Mondatta." The album did very well. Arguably, its namesake did even better.

Also in the celebrating group will be trainer John Shirreffs and his wife, Dottie Ingordo, who is the stable manager for Shirreffs' operation.

Before Zenyatta heads to Kentucky for her next career as a mom -- first baby named Mondatta? -- she is on a victory tour that may include a similar parade during Santa Anita's winter meeting. Also, Oak Tree at Santa Anita recently renamed its Lady's Secret Grade I Stakes the Zenyatta Stakes, starting next fall. Zenyatta won that race twice.

Well before Zenyatta's victory jog, the weekend will be busy with racing that should live up to Hollywood Park's Festival label for its three days of five graded races.

And therein lies the bitter.

Just 11 days ago, the trainer who dominated this weekend died. Bobby Frankel had 17 wins in 17 years of competing in the Turf Festival, and that was 11 more than anybody else. Like Shirreffs and Zenyatta, Frankel's home for most of his Hall of Fame training career was Hollywood Park.

Three horses trained by Frankel will race -- Fluke and Proudinsky in today's $300,000 Grade I Citation Handicap and his prize mare, Ventura, in Saturday's Matriarch, also a $300,000 Grade I.

The other featured races are Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Generous Stakes, and Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Miesque and $300,000 Grade I Hollywood Derby.

Fluke, Proudinsky and Ventura will all be saddled by Humberto Ascanio, Frankel's assistant for nearly 35 years. In the Frankel barn, Fluke and Proudinsky are special horses, but Ventura is even higher on the pedestal. Like Zenyatta, the 5-year-old mare was headed for retirement after the Breeders' Cup. She won the 2008 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mares sprint and was second this year.

Frankel, on his death bed, called Ascanio after the Breeders' Cup and told him to keep training her. "He said he wanted to give her one more shot," Ascanio said.

Saturday's Matriarch will be that shot.

The 62-year-old Ascanio was seated in a small office near the backstretch at Hollywood Park.

It was Frankel's office, the center of a horse-racing empire that had produced 3,654 victories and $227,947,775 in winnings. That purse money made Frankel the second-winningest trainer in North American racing, behind only D. Wayne Lukas.

There is only one picture on the office wall. The picture, Ascanio's choice, is of a horse named Fighting Fit, in a winner's circle after a 1985 stakes victory. Ascanio said there were many more pictures, but the grooms, hot walkers and exercise riders all asked for some, because each carried a memory of Frankel.

Ascanio said he kept the picture of Fighting Fit because it represented a time when the Frankel empire began to grow. Fighting Fit was owned by Moss, who will be celebrating at Zenyatta's parade Sunday.

"Mr. Moss really got us started," Ascanio said. "I'll never forget him for that."

Along with Moss came Ingordo. Until she took over her husband's stable operations, Ingordo did the books and schedules for Frankel, who was a tough, no-nonsense New Yorker, with a big heart and trouble knowing how to show it.

When Frankel died, early in the morning of Nov. 16, Ascanio learned from Ingordo.

Frankel, 68, died of lymphoma. He had battled it for more than six months and had also battled against any public knowledge of it. He talked to Ascanio every day by phone and never said a word about being ill. Ascanio, as well as everybody else on the backstretch, knew.

"He never told me," Ascanio said. "Didn't need to. You talk to a guy every day for 30 years, you can feel it."

Frankel was not a pat-on-the-back guy. In racing, he was as legendary for being gruff as he was for being successful.

But he had complete trust in Ascanio, who now hopes to begin a career with his own stable. For years, Frankel would head east in the spring to handle his operation at Belmont and not return until the fall. Ascanio would handle the Western operation. Frankel was home in Pacific Palisades when he died, but Ascanio had not seen him since April.

Ascanio was asked if there had been a final telephone call, a last conversation that brought some measure of closure.

The man who left Tijuana in 1969 because he could make $425 a month as a racetrack groom, and who went to work for Frankel five years later, turned away and put his hand over his eyes. His boss of 35 years fought every public emotion, and now, so did Ascanio. His eventual answer came in a choked gasp.

"I never got a chance to say thanks," Ascanio said.

There may not be crying in baseball, but it's OK in racing when there is the joy of Zenyatta and the loss of Frankel.

Post time is 12:30 p.m. all three days. Bittersweet.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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