Bobby Frankel, Hall of Fame racehorse trainer, dies at 68

Empire Maker with trainer Bobby Frankel after Belmont 6-8-2003
Empire Maker with trainer Bobby Frankel after Belmont 6-8-2003 (By
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bobby Frankel, 68, a Hall of Fame racehorse trainer whose eye for thoroughbred talent turned losers into winners and winners into bigger winners, culminating in more than 3,500 career victories and $225 million in purse money, died Nov. 16 at his home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. He had cancer, said his close associate Garrett O'Rourke.

Throughout a 43-year career, Mr. Frankel was respected as one of horse racings' living legends. He won practically every major race, including the 2003 Triple Crown jewel Belmont Stakes with Empire Maker, and the 2004 $4 million Breeder's Cup Classic with Ghostzapper.

In 2008 -- his last full year of training because of declining health -- Mr. Frankel finished with 93 wins, $11.7 million in earnings, and 11 Grade 1 victories. It was the most of any trainer in North America.

His most remarkable achievement came in 2003, when he won 25 Grade 1 races, the sport's toughest competition for the largest purses. He set records for the most victories and highest earnings in a single season -- $19,147,129.

Mr. Frankel earned a reputation as a quality horseman who could spot a champion amid the chumps. He started his training career during the middle 1960s in New York in lower quality "claiming races," where owners put their mounts up for sale before the start of the race.

Mr. Frankel would pick off the better among the bunch, enter them in races for higher stakes, and win. Mr. Frankel was best known for his skill as a handicapper. He would strategically enter his horses only in certain races where he could largely predict a successful outcome.

He won his first race in 1966 with horse named Double Dash at Aqueduct, and finished the year with $18,659 in earnings. By 1976 he had earned $8,069,603. In his lifetime, he won 21 percent of the races he entered and had accrued $227,947,775 in purse money.

Mr. Frankel's initial interest in horse racing began at the betting windows. One day during the early 1960s in New York, Mr. Frankel went to the track with $40 in his pocket. He got on a hot streak and collected $3,000. He made another bet on a 3-1 shot and it came in. He went home with $20,000 in cash.

"I put the money on my mother's bed," Mr. Frankel said, according to the Daily Racing Form. "She thought I had robbed a bank."

Robert Jules Frankel was born July 9, 1941, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He started in the racing industry in the muddy shed rows of the Aqueduct and Belmont Park race courses walking hot horses coming off the track from their workouts. He once said the early-morning labor was worth the free ticket to the afternoon racing.

He moved to California in 1972 and saw his career take off. He was the top trainer for multiple years in a row at the tracks of Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Del Mar.

Mr. Frankel was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1995 with much of his greater success still to come. He won five Eclipse Awards, the thoroughbred equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, as the country's trainer of the year. Ten of his horses were the Eclipse champions of their fields, including Ghostzapper, a bay colt who was horse of the year in 2004. One of the fastest horse's of all time according to a speed rating system, Ghostzapper won the $4 million Breeder's Cup Classic 1 1/4 -mile race wire-to-wire in a blazing 1:59.02.

Mr. Frankel, by many accounts a gruff and abrasive man, had many famous clients, including Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos, music industry executive Jerry Moss and baseball player and manager Joe Torre, but he largely kept himself out of the public eye and shied away from entering his horses in the glitzy and glamorous Triple Crown series.

His only Triple Crown-event win came at the 2003 Belmont Stakes with Empire Maker, a dark bay owned by Saudi Arabian Prince Khalid Abdullah, upsetting the favorite, Funny Cide, at becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Mr. Frankel was also successful with horses that ran on the grass, including Intercontinental, the top turf female of 2005, and Leroidesanimaux, the top turf male in 2005.

At 68, Mr. Frankel was still considered to be in the prime of his racing years. His last major victory was on Oct. 17 for the $2 million Canadian International 1 1/2- mile turf race with Champs Elysees.

"Life's funny," Mr. Frankel said in 2000. "Sometimes things just happen, and they change your life completely. I wasn't born into this. I just followed my instincts and ended up where I am."

Mr. Frankel had married and divorced multiple times. He kept a close relationship with his last wife, Bonita Boniface. Survivors include a daughter from a previous marriage, Bethenny Frankel, who appears on the cable television show "The Real Housewives of New York." A brother, who is a rabbi, lives in Israel.

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