Race for No. 1

Times Staff Writer

Asked his opinion of how the mare Azeri might influence the running of today’s $4-million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Lone Star Park, trainer Bobby Frankel curled his right index finger inside the thumb and held up the hand.


“She won’t be a factor,” Frankel said. “There’s no scenario where she can win, unless the gates don’t open for the other horses.”

Frankel, a Hall of Fame trainer who struggles to win races in the Breeders’ Cup, will saddle Ghostzapper in the 1 1/4 -mile Classic, the climax to eight races worth $14 million.


By nightfall at Lone Star, the Dallas-area track playing host to the Breeders’ Cup for the first time, voters may have a clearer idea of how to cast their horse-of-the-year ballots. With the track sold out and no walk-ins allowed, a crowd of about 51,000 is expected. Umbrellas are verboten for security reasons but there is a chance of showers, with temperatures expected to reach a muggy 80 degrees.

Azeri, despite Frankel’s pooh-poohing, is a horse-of-the-year candidate, as is Ghostzapper, who is undefeated in three starts this year. Others from the Classic who might win the national title include Pleasantly Perfect, Roses In May, Birdstone and Funny Cide.

Outside the Classic, Smarty Jones and Kitten’s Joy theoretically have a chance. Smarty Jones, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, beaten only once (by Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes) and retired in July on the strength of a $39-million syndication deal, needs an out-of-the-weeds horse to win the Classic, as does Kitten’s Joy, the even-money favorite in the $2-million Turf Stakes.

Frankel’s comments were carried to Michael Paulson, the owner of Azeri, who chose to run his horse against males in the Classic instead of running as the favorite in the $2-million Distaff, the race she won two years ago to nail down horse of the year.

Azeri, seeking to become the first distaff winner of the Classic -- only two females have tried in 20 years -- is a 15-1 outsider on the morning line.

“I respect Bobby Frankel ... “ Paulson said. “But I think we’re doing what’s best for the horse and best for racing. I’m confident that Azeri will put on a good show and make the boys run for their money.”


Frankel may be annoyed that another speed horse, Azeri, might get in Ghostzapper’s way early. The two have similar running styles, and Javier Castellano, Ghostzapper’s jockey, has no choice but to gun his horse from the No. 1 post in a 13-horse field. Azeri drew the three-hole.

“Ghostzapper’s got those things good horses have, a big engine and a big heart,” Frankel said. “I think people will see how much of a horse he really is.”

Ghostzapper, bred and owned by Frank Stronach, was troubled by a cracked hoof the first part of the year, but won the Tom Fool Handicap at Belmont Park, the Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park and the Woodward at Belmont once Frankel got him ready. The son of Awesome Again, Stronach’s 1998 Classic winner, has won seven of nine starts.

As the time before the Classic dwindled from days to hours, it became increasingly fashionable to characterize this running as one of the deepest fields in Breeders’ Cup history, but Frankel isn’t buying it.

“It’s a three-horse race,” he said at first. “Me, Pleasantly Perfect and Roses In May.”

Minutes later, Frankel realized that he had forgotten one.

“Put Birdstone in there too,” he said. “He’s got the right style” -- just off the pace -- “although I think the track might work against him.”

Pleasantly Perfect, winner of last year’s Classic at Santa Anita, is the 5-2 favorite, followed by Ghostzapper at 3-1. Funny Cide, despite his Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins last year, had tailed off by Santa Anita and ran next to last at 8-1. He has been improving and is 6-1 for this Classic.


“Azeri and Funny Cide are the darlings of America,” Frankel said. “Well, I’ve got my own darling: Ghostzapper.”

Frankel, 63, has six Breeders’ Cup starters, the most of any trainer. Before the Classic, he’ll run Nothing To Lose in the Mile, Cajun Beat and Midas Eyes in the Sprint and Light Jig and Megahertz in the Filly & Mare Turf. Cajun Beat was trained by Steve Margolis when he won the Sprint last year.

Although Frankel’s horses have earned $7.5 million, which puts him behind only Wayne Lukas and Bill Mott on the Breeders’ Cup money list, his 57 starters have produced two wins, by Squirtle Squirt in the 2001 Sprint and Starine in the 2002 Filly & Mare Turf. Frankel was 0 for 38 when Squirtle Squirt won, but he still saw the 2001 glass as half-empty, because several of his better chances didn’t fare well.

In the Classic, Frankel is 0 for 12. He has started the favorites the last three years, Aptitude and Medaglia d’Oro twice, and they’ve run eighth, second and second. In the early 1990s, Frankel tried three times with Marquetry, never finishing better than fourth. His other second-place finish in the Classic, at Santa Anita with Bertrando in 1993, was the toughest of all.

Bertrando had the finish line, and the horse-of-the-year title, in his sights when Arcangues, a sore-backed colt from France, tracked him down to win by two lengths. Arcangues paid $269.20 for $2, a Breeders’ Cup record.

You could say that the Classic owes Frankel one, but the game doesn’t work that way. There has been only one Classic winner from the inside post.



Talking about smallish Birdstone, owner-breeder Marylou Whitney said: “They all look like elephants next to him.” ... Californian J. Paul Reddam has bought 75% of Wilko, the longshot who’s running in the Juvenile. The colt, who’ll be saddled by English trainer Jeremy Noseda today, will go to Craig Dollase after the race.... Lone Star will break its attendance record by about 20,000.... Ron Charles, who has been racing horses for about 30 years, has been named executive director of the Magna Entertainment tracks in California. Charles recently resigned as chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. Magna owns Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields and has run meets at Bay Meadows on a lease basis.