Not all thoroughbred horse trainers grow up on farms in Kentucky or ranches in Texas.
Bobby Frankel grew up in New York, a streetwise teenager first attracted to area harness and thoroughbred tracks as a gambler. He applied those handicapping skills and a sharp eye for horses into a training career that has catapulted him to the top of his profession.
Frankel, 61, hopes to reach the apex of his career Saturday, May 3, with his first victory in the Kentucky Derby. Frankel will saddle both Empire Maker, the solid favorite, and Peace Rules, the probable second choice, in the "Run for the Roses," the most prestigious horse race in America.
Frankel, who moved to California in 1972 and lives in Pacific Palisades, is the son of New York caterers. Always a maverick, Frankel never desired to become a doctor or a lawyer, an accountant or a rabbi. After graduation from Far Rockaway High School, Frankel attended C.W. Post College for one day. The only post on his mind was post time for the first race at Belmont or Aqueduct. Not surprisingly, one of his early role models was Buddy Jacobson, a winning but irreverent trainer who set the New York establishment on its head.
An equine Einstein, Frankel learned quickly, and by the time he settled in California, had already acquired the nickname, "King of the Claimers," for his ability to claim horses out of cheaper races and improve them dramatically. Admirers and rivals alike shook their heads in awe at Frankel's unmatched talents in measuring the value of a horse, recognizing what distance would best suit him and knowing how easy or hard to train him to maximize his potential. Frankel was blessed with a sixth sense in being able to judge a horse and communicate with him. He could have probably taught Mr. Ed to be mute.
In 1990, Frankel began training higher-quality horses, and during the past decade has risen from one of the best trainers in North America to the best.
Frankel, who is headquartered at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, oversees a stable of more than 100 horses. Frankel-trained horses have earned more than $145 million during his career.
Abrasive, brash and enigmatic have all been adjectives used to describe the moody trainer, who claims that he has mellowed considerably from the Fast Eddie image that he once projected. One reason may be the influence of a growing number of high-class owners.
Frankel's list of owners includes such well-heeled Europeans as the Niarchos and Wildenstein families. Leading Southern California owners include Ed Gann of San Diego, John Amerman of Palos Verdes Estates and Frank Stronach, owner of Santa Anita Park. Frankel also trained for Audrey Skirball until her death last year and continues to train for her widower, Charles Kenis of Century City. Interestingly, the one owner more responsible than any for Frankel's rise during the 1990s was Prince Khalid Abdullah, a publicity-shy Saudi Arabian prince, who spends much of his time in England and owns breeding farms in England, Ireland and Kentucky under the name Juddmonte Farms.
Empire Maker, the Kentucky Derby favorite, is owned and was bred by Juddmonte. Frankel picked the precocious colt out of a Kentucky pasture as a yearling two years ago.
Peace Rules, another top contender, comes off victories in the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Kentucky for another leading Frankel owner, Gann.
Gann, a former tuna boat owner who has loyally remained with Frankel for 30 years, was once asked how the relationship had endured for so long with the one-time enfant terrible of the sport.
"You hear a lot of things about Bobby Frankel, but you never hear that he's a bad trainer," Gann quipped.
The world may hear a lot more about Frankel Saturday.
Steve Schuelein is a freelance sports writer based in Playa del Rey.