Wednesday, November 18, 2009
A Brooklyn Tale
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, November 17, 2009--The news that Bobby Frankel had died did not come as a shock to anyone in this business. Demanding privacy, he hadn’t been seen on the backstretch of Southern California racetracks for over six months. And this Hall of Famer was nothing if not hands-on.
|Frankel Awaits Vineyard Haven in the Winners Circle After 2008 Hopeful Stakes
Photo by: Toni Pricci
I knew Frankel and he knew me, though not so you’d notice. Broadway Bobby had become Hollywood Bobby, having struck out for California in 1972, five years before I landed a job as a Newsday racing columnist and its first thoroughbred handicapper. It was the handicapper who Frankel acknowledged.
But even if I had known him better, I doubt that he would have allowed me into his circle, one that he kept small, on purpose I suspect. He didn’t consider many horseman to be his equal and said so. Eventually, his resume would prove him right on that one.
Bobby Frankel was focused long before that term became fashionable. And in the horse racing business that means you don’t allow a lot of time for friends, or what most people would refer to these days as a life.
We first met professionally--I think it was 1988--when Frankel brought Ruhlmann to Gulfstream Park for the Florida Derby. I heard that he could be an intimidating interview, so I tried to loosen him up a bit with references to his late mentor and good friend, Buddy Jacobson, who gave him his start in more ways than one.
When that tack didn’t work, I flirted with the idea of bringing up the name of an old class mate and good friend of mine who, like Frankel, came from the streets of Brooklyn.
But I didn’t dare mention John Parisella. That might have gotten a rise out of Frankel I was ill equipped to handle. The intimidation factor came with a short fuse.
But that’s what can happen when you train horses for James Caan and Don Adams and Telly Savalas and Don Rickles, who Parisella’s uncle, Joe Scandore, managed throughout his career, and what happens when you hang in the Hollywood Park Turf Club with Omar Sharif.
And neither do you get in the Hall of Fame because you put New York winter racing on the map, winning virtually every stakes race in those early days for one of the early computer whiz kids, Ted Sabarese.
|John Parisella at his Saratoga barn this summer
Photo by: Toni Pricci
So it’s difficult for me to think of one without the other.
In the 1960’s, Frankel learned his craft from Hirsch Jacobs’ nephew, Buddy Jacobson, the dominant trainer who was the New York claiming game at that time.
During that period, Parisella was top assistant to Tommy Gullo, a legendary betting trainer. In those days, if you knew when Gullo was betting his money, you bet yours, and you didn’t bother to watch the race. You simply walked around to the other side of the betting bay and queued up at the cashiers window. More often than not, you cashed.
Before Frankel and Parisella became rivals on the track and off, they were friends with a mutuel respect for each other’s talent. There was a time when Parisella saddled Frankel’s horses during the Jewish high holy days.
Frankel thought so much of Parisella that he paid him $500 for every recommended claim and offered to send him to Monmouth Park with a division at three times what Gullo was paying, but that never came to fruition.
The two trainers bonded closer when Frankel was fired by Saul and Herb Nadler, a successful father-and-son team of owners, before young Herb decided to keep the day-money in the family and took out a trainer’s license of his own.
Later, Jacobson came to Frankel’s rescue and got him a new client, the Wall Street broker William Frankel, whose horses raced under his wife’s colors, Marion R. Frankel. They became an extremely successful team and before long the future second-leading money-winning trainer of all time took his game to California.
Frankel hit the ground running and business was good from the start but on the home front, not so much. Frankel’s first wife, Bonnie, who went to California with her husband, returned to New York three months later. Their marriage was in a shambles. Eventually, it would end in divorce.
One day as Parisella was having lunch at Aqueduct with Willie Frankel, who introduced the trainer to Richard Crooks, another Wall Streeter who wanted into the racing game, Frankel was making the introductions when Bonnie Frankel, a family friend of Willie Frankel, no relation, joined them at the table. That’s how John and Bonnie met.
In the months that followed, they became friends. Bonnie was having a tough time dealing with the failed marriage at about the same time that John lost his father, his best friend and racetrack mentor.
Parisella spent many evenings at Bonnie’s Forest Hills apartment, baby-sitting the daughter that Frankel had fathered. Bethenny, now 38, became as famous as her father, first as a contestant on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” and currently on the reality show “Real Housewives of New York.”
Over the course of that first year, Bonnie and John’s friendship grew into a loving relationship and eventually they were married. I remember celebrating Bethenny’s Sweet Sixteen on a huge party boat that John rented on Long Island’s South Shore.
The rivalry between these horsemen from Brooklyn became more intense, reaching its nadir when, after Frankel claimed a horse from Parisella’s good friend, the veteran trainer Tommy Heard, and turned him into a stakes winner, Frankel disparaged Heard in the press. Heard’s wife, Chickie, whose family owned the Colt 45 malt liquor company at the time, wouldn‘t let it go.
She gave Parisella $250,000, a whole lot of money back then, with the proviso that he only claim horses from Frankel. Parisella did so, and the horses did pretty well. Frankel never claimed any of them back.
So, yes, there was a whole lot of history between the two but as it turns out, a valuable life’s lesson, too. This past June, Louis Lazzinnaro--Frankel’s good friend, owner of Sergio’s restaurant in Saratoga and part owner of Vineyard Haven, lost his father.
Lazzinnaro was part of a group that Frankel put together to purchase last year’s subsequent Hopeful and Champagne winner, the gray colt which later was sold to Middle Eastern interests for a reported eight figures.
During a visit to Parisella’s North Shore home, the trainer asked Lazzinnaro how Frankel was doing, and said him to tell him he was praying for him. Lazzinnaro replied that Bobby told him that he was rooting for John, too.
Shortly before the past Saratoga meet, Parisella saw Jose Cuevas, Frankel’s long-time New York assistant, and inquired how Frankel was getting along. “He got your message,” Cuevas told him, “he thanks you for your prayers and hopes you have a great meet.”
Parisella recently sent an old friend a text message. A week later, Bobby Frankel, who deservedly will be remembered as one of the sport’s true all-time great horsemen, died four months after reaching his 68th birthday.
The relationship of these rivals from Brooklyn had come full circle and the lesson couldn’t be more clear: The racetrack is an extremely competitive place, rife with jealousy and strife.
But when one of their own is in trouble, once bitter rivals can put aside their differences and rally behind one another, choosing good times over bad. In life’s game, that’s how winners define themselves.