SI Vault
Ernest HaveMann
November 11, 1974
Leading trainer Bobby Frankel learned about horses the hard way—he started out as a bettor
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November 11, 1974

Up From The Win Windows

Leading trainer Bobby Frankel learned about horses the hard way—he started out as a bettor

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"Of course I got tapped out lots of times, too," he admits. "But my mother always put me back in action. She loved the races as much as I did. And she was real cool, my mother; she never worried about me. It's a sad thing, but she died before I got good as a trainer. She would have got a big kick out of it." He cannot remember whether, on the day he piled the $22,000 on the bed, he cut her in for part of the profits.

What turned Frankel from a betting man into a horseman, almost by sheer accident, was the universal desire of all horseplayers to get into the track for free. Through one of his grandstand friends he discovered that he could get a badge entitling him to free admission if he worked now and then around the barns in the morning as a hot walker. This is the lowest job on the racetrack, involving nothing more than leading a horse around after a workout until the animal has cooled out and can safely be returned to his stall. It requires no knowledge of horses at all; it can be performed, since the horse is tired and in no mood to act up, by any fourth-grader, boy or girl.

Frankel viewed the job only as an open sesame to the racetrack turnstiles, but one summer, when the horses moved from the New York City tracks to Saratoga, a trainer for whom he worked happened to have three horses that were not ready to race. He left the three behind, with an exercise boy and a groom and Frankel in charge.

By his own admission, Frankel was ill-equipped for the job. "I didn't know what horses ate or nothing," he says. "I didn't know whether they ate meat. In fact I was just there. The exercise boy and the groom did all the work."

It does not take long, however, to turn a tyro into a trainer, at least a trainer of sorts. Doing the job well may be a fine art, but the rudiments are simple. Once a person has discovered that racehorses eat three meals of oats a day plus a constant supply of hay, need new shoes about once a month and have to be exercised every morning, and has learned to put on a saddle, a bridle and a set of blinkers, he is well on his way to passing the examination for a trainer's license, which is by no means so rigorous as the bar exam. Nor is it difficult to find customers. There are always horse owners who are unhappy with their present trainer and eager to try a new one, especially if the new one will work cheap.

Soon Frankel had his trainer's license and his first client, an owner with three modestly talented horses, and started making his first visits to the winner's circle. He looks back on that period with a certain amount of disbelief. "Can you imagine it?" he says. "There I was winning races and I still didn't know nothing."

He started to learn the following winter when he had his modest string of horses in Maryland and happened to be stabled in the same barn as Buddy Jacobson, who was then winning more races than any other trainer in the East.

As Frankel recalls it, "Buddy had a lot of business in Florida that winter, and whenever he was gone he left me in charge of his horses. He'd call me up every day with instructions, and I started to get the feeling of how a good trainer does his job. I began to ask questions and he'd give me the answers. I learned a lot from Buddy. Of course, I'm a better trainer now than he was, but he was the fellow who taught me."

By the time he was 25, Frankel managed to be runner-up for leading trainer at one of the New York meets, the toughest place in the nation to make good. "I got beat by just one winner," he says, "and I haven't looked back since."

Like Buddy Jacobson before him, Frankel is a king of the claimers, specializing in the so-called claiming races for cheaper horses that make up the bulk of all races run in the U.S. To enter a claiming race, an owner has to put a price on his horse. For example, he can put the horse in a race for $15,000 horses, in which case any other owner at the meet can claim the horse from him, buying it immediately after the race for that $15,000 figure.

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