Trainer Robert Frankel’s legacy will be felt deeply in a variety of ways.
Besides his incredible resume and plaque in the National Racing Hall of Fame, Frankel’s influence will continue to show up in how Chad Brown trains his horses.
The 30-year-old from Mechanicville worked as an assistant to Frankel for 51⁄2 years before striking out on his own in 2007, and it only makes sense for him to use the same principles that made Frankel, who died of lymphoma at 68 on Monday, a winner of over a quarter of a billion dollars in purses and dozens of Grade I races.
“He had a huge impact on my career,” Brown said on Friday. “When I set out to try and be a trainer, things really changed for me when i started working for him, because he did things on a totally different level. He told me he wasn’t going to hold my hand, but I had to be around at all times and soak it in, and I did that. I was so, so lucky to be in the right place at the right time to learn from him.”
Brown attended funeral services for Frankel in southern California this week, which drew about 400 people.
He recounted how Frankel, a Brooklyn native who eventually had powerhouse strings on both coasts, asked Brown, a former assistant to another Hall of Famer, Shug McGaughey, to fly to California for an interview at a restaurant, where Frankel spelled out his demands and hired Brown, one of several interviewees, on the spot.
“I think he might’ve hired me because I was the youngest one he interviewed,” Brown said. “I think he was looking for someone who wasn’t already set in their ways that he could teach. That worked in my favor.”
“I was so nervous when I started. I wasn’t sure what to expect. He had been winning for decades, so I certainly wasn’t going to do anything to help him win. Soon into the job, I learned that, man, they really look after their horses here, and they’re just on another level. He was insistent on me to know his way of doing things. He made it clear that I was going to learn a lot.”
Brown said he’s modeled his system after Frankel’s, which follows two abiding principles: not running horses until they’re 100 percent ready, and being prepared to think on the fly when things inevitably don’t go as planned.
“He was pretty demanding,” Brown said. “He treated his help great, but he demanded a certain amount of perfection. He understood when things weren’t right, and could handle it. Just being around him, I knew what kind of standards he had.
“The main principle is patience, and you have to be flexible. Those are the two words. He always told me, ‘I want bad news right away.’ He wouldn’t rant and rave, but he’d complain and hang up, but then he’d call you back, and he’d always regroup and say, ‘OK, this horse needs a quarter patch,’ or ‘Let’s wait for this other race.’ He always ran them when they were healthy and sound and ready to run, and when things went wrong, he adjusted. There’s a lot of human error — an exercise rider breezed a horse too fast, or a blacksmith put a nail into a horse’s foot — but he always made the right adjustment, based on the bad news. He was a master at it.”
Brown had the privilege of saddling Ginger Punch to victory in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Monmouth Park, while Frankel was home in California monitoring the health of his beloved dog, Happy, who was dying.
Brown said all the training had been put in place by Frankel, so all he had to do was saddle the horse, but there was still tremendous pressure to win, especially since she had to be supplemented for $180,000 by owner Frank Stronach to get in the race.
Brown subsequently won a Breeders’ Cup race on his own, with Maram in the 2008 Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita.
By the time the Ginger Punch story unfolded, though, Brown had already helped Frankel with enough Grade I winners to make his head spin.
“He had 25 Grade I’s in one year; that’s a Grade I every other week,” Brown said. “He had Grade I winners on the backside of the barn.
“The list is scary, the horses that I worked on. Medaglia d’Oro, Ghostzapper, Sightseek, Intercontinental, I could go on. Cacique, Wild Spirit, Heat Haze, Precious Kitten, Tates Creek, I worked with all of them. Aldebaran, Peace Rules . . . Man, I learned so much, I almost feel guilty.”
Brown said he’s grateful for the fact that Frankel challenged him every day he worked for him.
“I had to raise my game,” Brown said. “I made a decision that, yes, I do want to put in the work.
“He has a system, and I run mine very close to the same way he did. At the same time, each individual, there’s something a little different with each horse, and he recognized that, and that separates him from a lot of other people. He always told me to watch what other trainers do. He was always learning. He told me, ‘Don’t ever think you know everything. I constantly change with the times to keep up.’ That’s why he won for decades, while other guys come and go.”
Although Frankel shifted his base to California, he never stopped being a formidable presence in New York, where his barn was overseen by long-time assistant Jose Cuevas.
“Bobby was a great horseman and a fierce competitor,” New York Racing Association racing director P.J. Campo in a NYRA release. “Over the years, he won many of the most prestigious races on the NYRA calendar with some of the most talented horses that have ever been stabled in New York. His passion for thoroughbred racing will be sorely missed.”
“He was a tremendous horseman, his horses always looked well, and he was a great caretaker,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “In some ways, he developed the trend of giving horses more time between races. He was very passionate about horses and passionate about racing.”
“He was an excellent horseman with an impeccable record,” McGaughey said. “He was great to his horses and great to his help. He went from the bottom rung of racing all the way to the top, which is a mark not only of him as a horseman, but as a person. He will be sadly missed.”
A new thoroughbred retirement farm called Old Friends at Cabin Creek, set to open in Greenfield Center, will be named in honor of Frankel, Old Friends founder and president Michael Blowen announced this week.
The 40-acre facility outside Saratoga Springs is the first satellite farm of the Lexington, Ky.-based Old Friends, a popular tourist spot for racing fans where well-known racehorses who are unable to breed are housed.
AROUND THE TRACKS
Brown has sent Maram (Filly and Mare Turf) and Silver Timber (Turf Sprint), both of whom finished sixth at the Breeders’ Cup, to Florida for a training break. Maram was lightly raced in 2009 and should be back sooner than her stablemate, he said, but both will point toward racing in 2010. “I thought both ran well,” he said. “I was disappointed they didn’t hit the board, but they ran well, and we’ll find another day to start the next campaign.” . . .
Jockey Ramon Dominguez’s assault on the NYRA record books continued last week when he piloted Freight Forward to victory at Aqueduct for his 341st New York win in 2009, passing Angel Cordero, Jr., to move into sole possession of second place for wins in a year by a jockey at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course. Steve Cauthen holds the New York record, 433 in 1977. Only four riders have scored more than 300 wins in a single year in New York. Cordero did it twice, with 340 in 1982 and 309 in 1983; fellow Hall of Famer Mike Smith won 330 in 1991 and 313 in 1993; and in 2006, Eibar Coa won 303. . . .
Florida Derby winner Quality Road will make his second appearance on the track this morning after being scratched at the gate for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He’ll go through the paddock and load into the gate with jockey John Velazquez aboard. Quality Road is being considered for the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct next Saturday.