Bobby Frankel’s success started with his unending love for the animals he trained. It was almost as if he was able to establish a personal connection with every horse in the barn.
“Bobby just had a natural gift, a natural feel, for not only training horses but for animals in general,” said Chad Brown, a former assistant who has established himself as a top trainer. “He could almost sense what they were thinking and feeling.”
Frankel (1941-2009) was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. His parents, Gertrude and Merrill, were in the catering business. He had no interest in that, instead developing an affinity for the racetrack and gambling. His eye for quality horses led him to begin his training career in 1966. He found ability when others thought there was none. It was fitting that his first major victory, in the Suburban in 1970, came with Barometer, a horse he claimed for $15,000.
Frankel moved his operation to California in 1972 and promptly set a single-season record of 60 winners at the Hollywood Park spring meeting. He accomplished that by combing through the ranks of undistinguished claiming horses and almost invariably spotting and developing talent others were not able to unlock.
Among Frankel’s gifts was his understanding that there was no “one way” to develop a horse. They all had their own needs and wants; a trainer had to adjust his regimen as those changed.
“He was constantly changing directions with horses,” Brown remembered. “He really individualized each horse.”
Frankel went on to win the Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer in North America five times (1993, 2000-03). He won 30 training titles at individual meets. He set a single-season record by taking 25 Grade 1 races in 2003.
Few major races other than the Kentucky Derby eluded Frankel, leading to his Hall of Fame induction in 1995. He earned six Breeders’ Cup victories, highlighted by Ghostzapper’s triumph in the 2004 Classic. His operation produced at least one Grade 1 winner every year from 1988 through his final season in 2009.
Frankel trained 10 champions: Aldebaran, Bertrando, Ghostzapper, Ginger Punch, Intercontinental, Leroidesanimaux, Possibly Perfect, Ryafan, Squirtle Squirt, and Wandesta. He was particularly adept at producing elite turf horses. His most prominent victories on grass included the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf (twice), the Arlington Million (twice), the Woodbine Mile (three times), and the Japan Cup.
In all, Frankel won 3,654 races. His horses earned $227,912,709, placing him third all-time behind D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher at the time of his death (Frankel ranks sixth all time in May 2020). The careers of Lukas and Pletcher, one of Lukas’ former assistants, are ongoing.
“He left us too soon, but he accomplished so much in his career,” Brown said. “I use things he taught me every day.”
Those who knew Frankel best describe him as a kind and good man beneath an exterior that could be gruff. Many of his employees remained fiercely loyal.
Frankel died of lymphoma at age 68. He was renowned for his love of dogs. It said everything about him that he missed the 2007 Breeders’ Cup at Monmouth Park in New Jersey because his Australian shepherd was near death.
The dog was named Happy.
Note: This story was posted in August 2017 and has been updated.
- Frankel, a colt named by Juddmonte to honor the late trainer, was retired undefeated through 14 starts in October 2012.
- Although everyone referred to Frankel as Bobby, he used Robert.
- He was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Hall of Fame in 2004.
- Julio Canani, a West Coast rival, nicknamed him “Presidente” in a show of respect.
- The San Gorgonio Handicap, a race Frankel won eight times, was renamed the Robert J. Frankel Memorial Handicap in 2010.