In Santa Anita Handicap lore, Bobby Frankel lives on

Bobby Frankel trained Santa Anita Handicap winners in 2002 and 2003.
(Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

This is a column about two big deals in Southern California horse racing, the Santa Anita Handicap and Bobby Frankel.

One will be run Saturday and the other is no longer with us. Neither will ever be forgettable. If it seems odd to talk about a live race via a dead man, then you don’t understand the value horse racing puts on its legends and legacies.

When Frankel died of cancer Nov. 16, 2009, at age 68, he had had hundreds of huge moments as a race trainer, including six Breeders’ Cup victories, a Belmont Stakes win, five Eclipse Awards and a 1995 Hall of Fame induction.


Close behind on that list are consecutive Big ‘Cap victories with Milwaukee Brew, the second 10 years ago. Much of Frankel’s mercurial personality and decision-making is capsulized in those two Big ‘Caps. In ’02, Kent Desormeaux rode Milwaukee Brew to victory. In ’03, Frankel took Desormeaux off and put Edgar Prado on.

Frankel was a psychologist’s living case study. He was ornery, abrupt, fiercely competitive and unpredictable. He was also friendly, funny, generous and kind.

Wednesday morning at Santa Anita’s Clocker’s Corner, talk of Frankel came easily. A profile emerged of a man who could be a coiled rattlesnake at the track and a cuddly teddy bear away from it.

Veteran jockey agent Scotty McClellan said, “I won a $500,000 race with Chris McCarron. For the horse’s next race, he took McCarron off and told me, ‘Scotty, I just didn’t like the way he rode him.’”

Laffit Pincay Jr. rode Frankel’s horses thousands of times and said, “I was a good friend and never really knew him.”

Frankel once told Pincay he would never win a riding title without him, then put Sandy Hawley on his horses. Pincay won the meet’s riding title, beating Hawley, and sent a message to Frankel, chiding him. Frankel just shrugged.

Pincay fell off a Frankel horse and broke his collarbone. Frankel went to the hospital and said only, “You needed a vacation, anyway.”

Vince DeGregory was Pincay’s agent for much of that time. He knew Frankel back East, roomed with him and was as close as anyone in racing to him. “I probably knew him 50 years,” said DeGregory, 80. “I’d also go years at a time where we didn’t speak.”

Pincay said Frankel told him, several times, to fire DeGregory. Pincay tried to patch things up. He took Frankel and DeGregory to dinner. Frankel refused to talk to, or look at, DeGregory.

Frankel arrived from New York in 1972. By the 1990s, a newcomer named Bob Baffert started stealing some thunder.

“He was so competitive,” Baffert said, smiling. “One time, I was going good and using Jerry Bailey a lot. We’re arguing about jockeys one day and he says, ‘You like him because you don’t have to give him any instructions.’”

Then there was the teddy bear.

Frankel loved baseball, and when Joe Torre was hired as Dodgers manager, Frankel all but gave his home to Torre. McClellan had bad luck one year with injured jockeys and couldn’t afford to attend the Del Mar meeting. Frankel demanded he stay with him at Del Mar, no cost. When another Hall of Fame jockey, Eddie Delahoussaye, was struggling with injuries late in his career and not getting quality horses, Frankel put him on three stakes winners.

Frankel may have been more comfortable around horses than people. He was a master at picking claiming horses, and at getting the right ones claimed. But he didn’t compromise safety or health; he knew the sore-legged ones from the crooked-legged ones who could still run.

Delahoussaye said he knew Frankel was ill for many years, but Frankel’s cancer became known only about the last six months. That’s because he wanted no sympathy, certainly no pity. To the end, he was his own man — stubborn, proud, tough.

When he died, the same Southern California racing community once put off by his abrasive and quirky ways mourned deeply.

DeGregory, back on speaking terms, called often in those final days, getting no answer and leaving messages.

On Nov. 16, 2009, he tried again. “Somebody picked up the phone,” DeGregory said. “It was a man, I knew the voice, and he said, ‘Bobby’s not here anymore.’”

Frankel died an hour later.

Torre has part ownership of Saturday’s Big ‘Cap favorite, Game On Dude. We can all assume Frankel will be somewhere, rooting for him. Also, cursing jockey Mike Smith’s every move.