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The claiming system is one of horse racing's great inventions, because it keeps horses of about the same ability running against each other. The owner with a horse worth about $15,000 has three choices, only one of them attractive. He can almost certainly win a purse by running his horse in a $10,000 race, but he will also surely lose the horse to another owner at a bargain price. He can keep the horse forever, never attracting a flicker of interest from other owners, by running the animal for $20,000—but he will also never win. The only sensible thing to do is run the horse against his peers in the $15,000 class, where he has a chance of winning but where other owners may not be quick to make a claim and where, if they do, he will get a fair price for the animal he loses.
To be a king of the claimers, a trainer must be a good handicapper; he must have the ability to spot horses that may have more ability than their present owners realize. Here Frankel's experience as a betting man comes into play. He has a knack of sensing when a young horse that has never shown much speed is just starting to come into his own, or when an older horse that once had a lot of class is about to make a comeback.
He has made some spectacular coups. He once claimed a horse named Baitman, seven years old at the time and presumably over the hill, for $15,000 and within a year and a half won more than $150,000 in purses with the elderly gentleman. Another of his $15,000 claims was a horse named Barometer, who obliged by winning the prestigious Suburban Handicap in New York and $175,000 in all.
Even a king of the claimers, of course, will make mistakes. For one thing, racehorses are fragile and most of them have physical problems of one kind or another. A horse may cool out so lame after the race in which he was claimed that he loses half his value overnight. Or he may never be able to run again. When a racing writer asked Frankel to name the worst claim he had ever made, Frankel said, "You've got to be kidding," meaning that his mistakes were too numerous and painful to recall.
Because claiming horses is risky, a king of the claimers needs an almost inexhaustible bankroll. Bobby Frankel has it. On the record, his chief owner is Mrs. Marion R. Frankel (no relation); for practical purposes it is her husband William Frankel, an over-the-counter stockbroker who likes the horses and has nerves of steel. William Frankel is the ideal owner for Bobby Frankel. When Trainer Frankel recommends claiming a horse for $40,000, it never takes Owner Frankel more than two seconds to decide yes or no, and it is usually yes. If the claim turns sour. Owner Frankel cheerfully writes off the loss, figuring the law of averages requires the next one will do better. "I've never had a real bad year," says Owner Frankel, "and I've had some pretty profitable ones. When it comes to claiming horses, training them and running them where they can win, I rank Bobby with the best."
Other trainers do not like to have their horses claimed away, especially those for which they have future hopes. But Bobby Frankel will claim from anybody, any time he feels like it. One of his rivals says, "If you're struggling along with only two horses and Bobby likes one of them, he'll take it. He's a loner. He's not afraid to make an enemy." Frankel once did something that ranks as one of the outstanding cases of chutzpah in racing history. He wanted to claim a quarter horse but he did not have sufficient cash on deposit at the track, as the rules require. He asked the owner of the track to cash a $10,000 check for him and then used the $10,000 to claim the horse, which just happened to belong to that very man, the owner of the track. Frankel still cannot understand why the incident caused so much head shaking. "If the fellow owns horses and runs them in a claiming race he should expect it," he says.
Despite the hazardous nature of their business racetrack people tend to be conservative. Most trainers hate to go out on a limb; they hesitate to put in a claim unless the horse they like is the favorite or near-favorite, indicating that a lot of people agree with them. Frankel could not care less; he has claimed horses that went off at 30 to 1.
Most trainers also worry about soundness; they like to take a careful look at the horse in the saddling paddock before making a claim, watching for any signs of a weak knee, ankle or tendon. Sometimes they even try to bribe the horse's groom to tip them to any hidden problems. Frankel never even bothers to look; if he likes the horse's record, he pays his money and takes his chances.
The chances can be rather fearsome. "After putting in that $15,000 claim for Barometer I watched him in the walking ring before the race," Frankel recalls. "He had great big knees and he was walking wide [a telltale sign of soreness]. I thought, my God, what did I do?" But a month's rest did wonders for those aching knees, and the claim turned out to be one of Frankel's best.
Frankel goes on the theory that most horses are unsound anyway. "I walked around my barn the other day looking at my 36 horses and trying to count the really sound ones," he said recently. "I counted up to one." He also goes by the law of averages. "If you take enough horses," he says, "you're going to get some bad ones and some good ones, and you just hope to get enough good ones so that your owners can have some fun and make a little money."