Bobby Frankel wasn’t sure how old he was -- his guesses ranged from 18 to 21 -- but not at issue was that the story came from Frankel’s slightly misspent youth, years before he saddled his first racehorse.
Call it Bobby Frankel’s $20,000 day at the races. In his own words, he was a gambler then, in the early 1960s, and this day at Aqueduct he started with $40. It was much harder then to run up such a modest bankroll. There were no pick sixes, not even an exacta. The game in New York was nothing but a daily double and win, place and show betting.
Without as much as making a bet, Frankel will have much more at stake Saturday. He’s running Empire Maker in the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and an hour later he’ll watch on TV from New York as another of his colts, Peace Rules, runs in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland. Both horses are heavy favorites, Empire Maker at 3-5 and Peace Rules at 7-5, and if they come through these 1 1/8-mile tests it will be on to the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs, where Frankel could have one of the strongest 1-2 punches ever.
Frankel, 61, has been at this game long enough to know that you’re never there until you’re there. “Things can happen to horses,” he said Thursday, looking for wood to knock on almost every time he mentioned the name of either horse. “As [jockey agent] George O’Bryan said to me a long time ago, ‘Strawberries today, jam tomorrow.’ ”
Empire Maker, winner of the Florida Derby a month ago, in only his fourth race, drew the outside post for the Wood, but if Frankel has a concern, it’s the condition of the track. It has been either snowing or raining in New York all week, with little sunshine and sub-40-degree temperatures, and more chill and rain today are likely to result in an off track Saturday. Empire Maker’s record in the mud is nonexistent.
“I imagine he’ll be able to handle anything,” Frankel said, “because the four times he’s run it’s been over a different track every time. But you never know how they’ll do with mud until they try it.”
Win or lose, Empire Maker’s trip in the Wood is almost bound to be better than his journey here from California. Twice on Tuesday the colt was transported by van from Hollywood Park to LAX, but the plane in waiting had mechanical problems. The third time, Tuesday night, Empire Maker was finally loaded on a plane that worked, and he arrived at Aqueduct about 9 a.m. Wednesday. Frankel didn’t think the delays were a big deal. The colt’s final workout for the Wood was conducted last Sunday at Hollywood Park.
New York Hero, whose name was inspired by the acts of bravery in the Sept. 11 attacks, drew the rail and is listed at 8-1 on the morning line. The Lane’s End Stakes winner at Turfway Park will be ridden by Norbert Arroyo Jr. Outside New York Hero, in order, come Spite The Devil, with Mike Luzzi riding, at 30-1; Kissin Saint, Richard Migliore, 20-1; Funny Cide, Jose Santos, 6-1; Senor Swinger, Gary Stevens, 10-1; Indy Dancer, John Velazquez, 5-1; Sky Soldier, Rodrigo Madrigal Jr., 15-1; and Empire Maker, Jerry Bailey, 3-5. They’ll all carry 123 pounds, three less than Kentucky Derby weight.
If the morning line at Keeneland means anything, Peace Rules’ biggest threat in the Blue Grass is Badge Of Silver at 2-1. Neither horse has run since the Louisiana Derby on March 9 in New Orleans, where Peace Rules emerged as a viable Triple Crown player with a 2 1/4-length victory while Badge Of Silver, with a flipped-palate excuse, ran sixth. Badge Of Silver has since had minor throat surgery that is expected to relieve his breathing problem.
This is the field at Keeneland, in post-position order: Acceptable Venture, Peace Rules, Offlee Wild, Badge Of Silver, Crowned Dancer, Great Notion, Ten Cents A Shine, Lion Tamer, Brancusi and Lots Of Sizzle.
Lots of sizzle was what Frankel had at the betting wickets here about 40 years ago. He started the day by hitting a $20 daily double as his bankroll slowly started to build. Bobby Ussery, who didn’t ride in the first two races, had mounts in the last six on an eight-race card. Ussery, a future Hall of Fame jockey, was a good rider to latch onto at Aqueduct in those days. He had an unusual way of leaving his rivals as the fields reached the far turn. He did it so often, the railbirds got to calling that part of the track “Ussery’s Alley.”
Ussery rode the last six races, won five of them and finished second in the stake, and Frankel was with him all the way. Full of himself by the eighth race, Frankel bet $5,000 on the nose of a 2-1 shot and Ussery booted him home.
It was enough to leave a young man with the canard that there was nothing to this game. As a trainer, himself en route to the Hall of Fame, Frankel would find out how wrong that could be. Exhibit A is the Breeders’ Cup. He ran 38 horses in those races before he won one.
The Arkansas Derby, a $500,000 Kentucky Derby prep, will also be run Saturday. The favorite in a 12-horse field is Eugene’s Third Son at 3-1. A California shipper, Man Among Men, is 4-1.... Buddy Gil, who was found to be bleeding slightly from both nostrils after winning the Santa Anita Derby, is scheduled for a workout Monday. Buddy Gil’s last pre-Kentucky Derby work is scheduled at Churchill Downs on April 28, five days before the race.
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Smelling the Roses?
Saturday’s Kentucky Derby preps:
*--* RACE TRACK PURSE DISTANCE PROBABLE FAVORITE Wood Memorial Aqueduct $750,000 1 1/8 miles Empire Maker Blue Grass Keeneland $750,000 1 1/8 miles Peace Rules Arkansas Derby Oaklawn Park $500,000 1 1/8 miles Eugene’s Third Son