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Unfinished Business

Times Staff Writer

Bobby Frankel is Brooklyn in the way he speaks in short, quick bursts and waves his hands. Having been in California for 30 years, racing horses in the sun, breathing the Pacific Ocean air, living the good life as trainer to big-money men from Saudi Arabia, getting the horses with the good breeding and attitude, he is still a “New Yawker” at heart.

He is an emotional man who will say -- no couching words or feelings -- “of course I want to win the Kentucky Derby very badly. I ain’t never won it. I’ve got a great chance this year. If I don’t win it, yeah, it’ll hurt.”

Frankel, 61, is a horse racing Hall of Famer. He has won the Eclipse Award, annually given to the nation’s best trainer, four times -- the last three in a row. In the last two years alone, Frankel’s horses have won $33 million in purses.

When it comes to Triple Crown trophies, though, the three Saturdays during the year when even casual race fans pay attention, Frankel has a big 0-fer -- a combined 0 for 8 in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

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Frankel is Phil Mickelson. He is the Buffalo Bills. He is the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs.

Saturday, in the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby, Frankel will saddle two horses. He has the favorite, Empire Maker, the dominant thoroughbred of this season, the choice of bettors so far and, in a cruel twist, a favorite with a question mark. Empire Maker has a bruised foot.

“It’s not a big deal,” Frankel keeps saying. “He’s gonna run.”

Frankel also has Peace Rules, who won the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes and who is likely to be the second favorite among bettors by post time Saturday. “Any other year, this horse would be the favorite,” Frankel said.

Yet Frankel is pitied.

Sitting outside a gate at O’Hare Airport in Chicago this week was a Newport Beach woman on her way to the Derby. She had owned horses, good ones she said, when she was married to a former husband. She spends significant time at Santa Anita and Del Mar and Hollywood Park and knows the sport and its people. She said she would be cheering for one man Saturday. Not for the horses, but for the man.

“I wish Bobby Frankel would finally win,” she said. “It would be so sad if he didn’t.”

Frankel isn’t worried. He isn’t obsessed about the Derby, or even about the injury to the horse who is supposed to finally bring him to the winner’s circle. Or, for that matter, about much of anything that has to do with his profession.

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He understands. Obsessing doesn’t work. He has learned that much as a child of the track.

He was inexplicably drawn to Belmont Park and Aqueduct as a kid, heading over there after school. And when he was old enough, Frankel isn’t embarrassed to say, “I was a gambler.” He gambled from knowledge, though.

Frankel would haunt the backstretches, watching and learning. Charlie Whittingham, the late, great Hall of Fame trainer, once said that Frankel was destined for the profession. “You could see it in his eyes. He wanted to be at the track. He wanted to be around the horses. Right from the start.”

When he was about 22, Frankel sweet-talked himself into a poor-paying job as a hot walker and three years later he was given a horse to train.

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“It was a terrible horse,” Frankel said. “But it was alive and I loved working it.”

Less than a year later, Frankel got his first win as a trainer, in a claiming race with a horse named Pink Rose.

“What a feeling,” Frankel said. “What a life to get to lead.”

For many of his 37 years as trainer, Frankel was a man of the low-cost, lowly bred claiming horses, the kind that sustain racing but don’t make owners -- or trainers -- famous. “King of the Claimers” is what horsemen called Frankel.

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It could have been taken as an insult. To Frankel, his nickname was an honor. “It meant that people understood what I was doing and that I was good at it,” he said.

Frankel loved being “King of the Claimers.” He loved when his touch made an unruly horse calm down. He loved the rush he got when “some nag that nobody thought could do anything” would tear up a track and win a race. Frankel would get the shivers, a rush of joy better than any big ticket he had cashed as a gambler.

In 1972, Frankel started coming west, looking for better horses, better owners, trying to get better known. “There were good tracks and good horses in California,” Frankel said. “I’m a Brooklyn boy, but I knew I had to leave.”

Once in California, Frankel made a name for himself coaxing great performances out of his stable on grass tracks. And he still had his claimers.

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But in 1990, Juddmonte Farms, an international racing and breeding conglomeration funded by Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah, was looking for a new trainer. “You wouldn’t believe this,” Frankel said, “but I got picked by a computer.”

Dr. John Chandler, head of operations at Juddmonte’s Lexington, Ky., location, said the prince wanted his new trainer picked without bias and with hard, factual information. “We determined the kind of trainer we were looking for, what would best fit our stable, we fed in the numbers and Bobby Frankel’s name came out,” Chandler said.

In a sport with so much mystery, where secret potions are mixed to fix aches and pains, where how a horse “feels,” or how the track “feels,” where chance and fate seem as important as fractions and furlongs, being picked by a computer, Frankel said, “was weird.”

But when the computer spit out Frankel’s name, it gave him something he thought he’d never have.

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“I got good horses,” Frankel said. “When I was with the claimers, I used to look up and see all the people with the well-bred horses. And I’d think, ‘I’ll never get those kind of horses.’ Well, you know what? I got ‘em now.”

In last year’s Derby, Frankel thought he had a winner in Medaglia d’Oro. Ridden by Laffit Pincay, Medaglia d’Oro stumbled out of the gate, got bumped badly and never had a chance to chase down winner War Emblem. “That’s just racing,” Frankel said last week, giving a shrug. “Disappointing? Yeah, sure. Devastating? Aw, no. You got other horses and other races.”

Wayne Lukas, who has trained four Kentucky Derby winners, stood nearby last week, observing Frankel surrounded by reporters and cameras, and thinking it might be about Frankel’s time.

“It’s a hurdle, the Triple Crown races,” Lukas said, “and Bobby will get over the hurdle. He’s too good a trainer not to. It’s just a matter of finding that one with his name on it.

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“But if he doesn’t do it this year he’ll get it next year. Or the next.”

That’s exactly what Frankel thinks.

“Look,” Frankel said. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve got good horses. It’s gonna happen.

“But I can’t hide from this either. The Kentucky Derby is the race I’ve always wanted to win. Guys will say it isn’t when it is. I’m just saying it. I want to win this race.

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“For me, it’s the biggest because it is America’s race. The average sports fan out there, he doesn’t know about the Breeders’ Cup or the Santa Anita Handicap. Those are great races. But everybody knows the Kentucky Derby. So I want to win it.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Kentucky Derby

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The field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby in post-position order, with jockeys, trainers, owners and morning-line odds. RUNNING: 129th. TRACK: Churchill Downs in Louisville. POST: 3 p.m. PDT. TV: Channel 4 (coverage starts at 2 p.m.). WEIGHTS: 126 pounds each. DISTANCE: 1 1/4 miles. PURSE: $1,115,200 if 17 start. First place: $815,200. Second: $170,000. Third: $85,000. Fourth: $45,000.


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