Frankel getting untracked for Cup

Trainer hopes to end 0-for-36 Breeders' run

Horse Racing

October 24, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. - The sometimes-surly Bobby Frankel melts at the mention of Flute.

"Come on in," he says, leading a visitor into his barn at Belmont Park. "Let's go see her."

A delicate brown face with bright, expectant eyes protrudes from the darkness of a stall. Frankel walks straight to it. He reaches out and caresses the soft cheek, then nuzzles the warm neck.

"She's just a sweet filly," Frankel says. "She's the greatest."

He takes two steps back, and Flute, one of six Frankel entrants in the Breeders' Cup, pines for his attention. She takes two steps back, and then comes forward, jutting her head into the shedrow. Frankel doesn't move, and Flute starts whipping her head around in circles.

Frankel can't stand it. He steps next to her again, and you can almost hear both of them purr.

"I've never gotten this close to a horse," Frankel says. "She seems like a human being. She understands everything. She's very feminine."

As ladies will do, Flute will be the first of Frankel's horses to run Saturday when the trainer attempts to break one of racing's most notorious losing streaks. Despite his two Eclipse awards and Hall of Fame plaque, Frankel, 60, has started 36 horses in Breeders' Cup races and not once accompanied any of them into the winner's circle.

If he doesn't end the jinx this year, as he has been saying himself all week, he ought to retire.

Frankel is not only the hottest trainer in the country, winning major stakes in California and New York with stunning frequency, but he also enters the Breeders' Cup with the strongest hand. Of his six entrants in the eight races, two will probably be favored (You in the Juvenile Fillies and Aptitude in the Classic), one will possibly be favored (Flute in the Distaff), and the other three have reasonable chances of winning as well (Squirtle Squirt in the Sprint, Starine in the Filly and Mare Turf and Timboroa in the Turf).

Frankel's horses have won 38 stakes, of which 30 were graded, meaning they were ranked among the toughest in the country. Of those graded stakes, 13 were Grade I, the toughest of all. Frankel's horses this year have earned $12.2 million.

After winning races at a 19 percent clip over the past 25 years, Frankel has won 26 percent of his races this year. And he's not only been good, but he's also been lucky. Within one hour July 1, Frankel horses on both coasts were placed first in Grade I's after the lead horses under the wire were disqualified.

"It's unbelievable," Frankel says. "What can I say?"

David Hofmans, a trainer in southern California where Frankel has been based for three decades, says that Frankel, a native New Yorker, has earned his good fortune.

"He's a tremendous horseman," Hofmans says. "There are a lot of horse trainers around, but there are very few horsemen. Bobby is one of the premier horsemen. I'd put him up there with the best horsemen I've ever seen."

At the same time, Hofmans says, Frankel is not a popular man. He can be nice one day and brash the next, Hofmans says.

"Nobody likes him," Hofmans says. "He's a New Yorker, a typical New Yorker."

Even a lifelong New Yorker, trainer Nick Zito, bristles at the mention of Frankel.

"I've got nothing to say about him," Zito says. "I don't want to get into that."

Nevertheless, Frankel around his horses, this week at least, is soft-spoken, helpful to reporters and quietly confident of his chances in the Breeders' Cup. He says he believes his best chances lie with You, Aptitude, Flute and Squirtle Squirt.

And Frankel thinks enough of the French-bred Starine, whom he owns, to have paid $90,000 to supplement her to the Breeders' Cup. And the owner of the British-bred Timboroa, Frankel's sixth entrant, paid a supplemental fee of $180,000. Neither horse was nominated to the Breeders' Cup as a foal.

Could Frankel possibly win half of the eight races?

"It's not out of the realm," he says. "But I'll take one or two of them right now."

Frankel has never won a Triple Crown race, but he has started only three horses in the Derby, none in the Preakness and one in the Belmont. Last year, he came close with Aptitude, who finished second in the Derby and Belmont.

This year, Aptitude is the likely favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He has won three straight races: the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup (via disqualification), the Grade II Saratoga Breeders' Cup and the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup.

His 10-length victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup three weeks ago at Belmont was one of the most dominant performances of the year. It elevated Aptitude to No. 1 in the weekly poll conducted by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

After winning two of his first 11 races, Aptitude became a major force because of blinkers, maturity and soundness, Frankel says. Aptitude has overcome nagging injuries and has never been healthier and fitter, the trainer says.

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