Ascanio says two Turf Festival wins were for Frankel

The late Bobby Frankel was always a straight shooter. He’d tell jockeys when he thought they’d messed up, and he also wasn’t shy about telling his longtime assistant Humberto Ascanio when he felt Ascanio had done something wrong. Nope, Bobby would always let you know what was on his mind.

But Saturday, after Ascanio saddled Ventura for a victory in the $300,000 Matriarch on the second day of Hollywood Park’s Turf Festival, Frankel’s 35-year assistant said his former boss wasn’t upset after Ventura’s second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Santa Anita on Nov. 6.

“He don’t say much,” Ascanio said in the winner’s circle after saddling his second Turf Festival winner in two days. He also sent out Fluke to win the $300,000 Citation Handicap on Friday.

“He saw the race, and the pace was slow. Now if I screwed up, he maybe would have told me something. But he knew there was no pace in the race and you can’t give too much advantage to good fillies in the Breeders’ Cup. She ran good, she tried, but there was too much to do, ya know?”

Ascanio said it was a sad day around the barn when Frankel died.

“It was a strange day,” Ascanio said. “I went to his house and he was laying in bed, but I had to see him. He didn’t let me go when he was alive. He said, ‘No, no no. I’ll be alright. I’ll be alright.’ It was a tough day. I mean, I knew he was going to die, but it’s tough.”

As he stood in the winner’s circle after The Matriarch, someone asked him if they have cell phones in heaven. After all, it was Frankel’s final wish that Ventura win The Matriarch and end her brilliant career with a victory. Surely, Bobby would have wanted to voice his thoughts.

“Maybe he’ll call me, hey?” Ascanio said.

Just then, the 62-year-old native of Guadalajara, Mexico reached into his jacket, pulled out his cell phone, looked at it and broke up the gathered media when he said, “Yeah, it’s him.”

If anyone could make a call from heaven, it would probably be Frankel, a man whom Ascanio held in high regard, dedicating the two Turf Festival victories to him.

“It’s a dream, ya know?” he said. “But everything was in memory of him. I’m happy for him. These are the horses he made, and he made my job easier. He was the best.”

Ascanio said there’s been no word yet regarding Juddmonte Farms’ decision about where their horses will be sent now that Frankel is gone. He says the direction they go is out of his control and he’s not going to fret about it.

Thing is, Ascanio has already made his bid, shown Juddmonte what he can do by caring for Frankel’s horses while the Hall of Fame trainer spent half his time in Kentucky and New York. Sure, Frankel was calling the shots and all, but they were in Ascanio’s care and you know Ascanio absorbed all of what Frankel taught him. If Frankel, a man who always wanted everything run exactly right, had not trusted Ascanio, he would have found someone else or not spent as much time in other parts of the country.

No, Humberto Ascanio is not the high-profile name Juddmonte may be seeking, but he’s definitely the right man for the job. The right move would be for Juddmonte to reward Ascanio for all his hard work over the years with their horses by keeping them all with him.

Turf Festival winds up with Derby, Miesque

I like Take the Points in today’s $300,000 Hollywood Derby as Hollywood Park wraps up its three-day Turf Festival.

Take the Points has won two consecutive Grade 1 races on the grass, showing he’s a different horse since being switched to the turf after a 13th-place finish in the Preakness. Edgar Prado flies in to ride.

I’ll go with The Mailet in the $100,000 Miesque Stakes as the 2-year-old Rock Hard Ten filly comes in off a 1 1/2-length maiden score on the turf at Belmont Park on Oct. 22. She came from well out of it in her third career start and Joel Rosario gets the call.

It will be interesting to see how many Hollywood Park draws today on Zenyatta Day. As I was walking in it looked like a decent-size crowd.

How many will show up on Zenyatta Day?

Hollywood Park is holding a retirement party for the sensational Zenyatta on Sunday, giving out DVDs that include all 14 of her victories and posters to fans in attendance. The question of the day is this — how many will show up at a track that has trouble drawing 10,000 for its signature race, the Hollywood Gold Cup, each summer?

One Hollywood Park official says they’re hoping for 12,000, but will be happy with 10,000. Actually, I think they’ll be doing well if they draw 8,000, which would be about double what they draw on a normal Sunday.

Whatever they draw, it will definitely be because of Zenyatta, who became the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 7, defeating 11 males in what was definitely the most memorable moment in Breeders’ Cup history.

The big feature on the final day of the Turf Festival, the $300,000 Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, is a fine race that includes some nice 3-year-olds, but let’s face it — if the popular Lava Man couldn’t attract 10,000 to any of his Gold Cups, it’s going to take more than Take the Points and Sal the Barber.

If Zenyatta can draw 10,000-12,000 Sunday, heck, that might be more impressive than the 58,000-plus who showed up to watch her steal the show in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Could be a big day for Garrett Gomez

Garrett Gomez, two-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey, is sitting on a big afternoon today at Hollywood Park. He’ll be aboard horses in the two Turf Festival races that figure to go postward as the favorites — Bridgetown in the $100,000 Grade 3 Generous Stakes for 2-year-olds at a mile and Ventura in the $300,000 Matriarch, a Grade 1 event for older fillies and mares at one mile.

Bridgetown looks as close to a lock as anything on the weekend’s Turf Festival agenda, having lost by only three-quarters of a length to the talented Pounced in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf on Nov. 7 at Santa Anita. The Speightstown colt went postward at 8-1 in his last, but is 6-5 on the morning line today and figures to go off at odds-on against seven foes. If anybody upsets the favorite, it figures to be either Who’s Up, with Victor Espinoza in the saddle, or Alfarabi, who’ll be ridden by Rafael Bejarano.

The Matriarch is a little more wide-open, despite the presence of Ventura and her 7-5 morning-line price. The trio of Diamondrella, Rutherienne and Tuscan Evening also have shots because Ventura is better at one-turn miles than the two turns she’ll be running today. She’s vulnerable, though she definitely deserves to be the favorite.

I like Bridgetown in the Generous and I’ll single him in the pick six. I’m picking Diamondrella in the Matriarch, though I’ll also use the other aforementioned distaffers in exotics and the pick six. If you want to use an outsider in the Generous, consider the aforementoned duo and Ace of Aces, who lost a maiden race by a nose in his debut in Ireland on Sept. 22.

Turf Festival gets started today with Citation

Hollywood Park’s three-day Turf Festival, which includes five graded grass races for purses totaling $1.1 million, kicks off today with the $300,000 Grade 1 Citation Handicap at 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-olds and up.

I like Cowboy Cal, who’s got the ability to dictate the pace if they go too slow up front or sit second or third and pounce in the stretch if the early fractions are too quick. Rafael Bejarano will be able to pick his poison.

Other contenders include Fluke, Proudinsky, Blue Chagall, Ever a Friend and Monzante, although I am afraid of an Ever a Friend bounce off his big score in an optional claimer at Santa Anita on Nov. 5 in his first race in 17 months.

The Turf Festival continues Saturday with the $300,000 Grade 1 Matriarch for older fillies and mares and the $100,000 Grade 3 Generous Stakes for 2-year-olds. On Sunday, it’s the $300,000 Grade 1 Hollywood Derby for 3-year-olds and the $100,000 Grade 3 Miesque Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.

We’ll follow up with our selections for those four races Saturday morning.

Tidbits from Hollywood Park

Trainer Doug O’Neill says the comebacking Lava Man is getting closer to his first start, which he says could be the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park on Dec. 12. The popular 8-year-old gelding worked six furlongs Saturday morning over Hollypark’s Cushion Track in a bullet 1:20.20 under Joel Rosario.

“He worked in company, broke about three lengths off, ranged up in mid-work and finished strong,” O’Neill said. “The Native Diver is the game plan.”

* Garrett Gomez, who escaped serious injury in the ninth race Saturday after he was thrown under the inner rail when his mount, Bonnie Brown Eyes, fatally broke down in the final sixteenth of a mile, took off Sunday’s mounts.

Gomez’s agent, Ron Anderson, said his client had X-rays on his shoulder and elbow that were negative and he was released early Saturday night from Centinela Hospital in Inglewood. Anderson said Gomez was “a little jarred up” but that he’s expected to return to action this week.

* Victor Espinoza and Mike Smith will miss part of next weekend’s Turf Festival because of out-of-town riding commitments. Espinoza will be at Churchill Downs on Friday to ride Misremembered for trainer Bob Baffert in the Clark Handicap, and Smith will be aboard Stardom Bound at Aqueduct on Saturday for the Gazelle Stakes.

Frankel assistant not worried about future

Humberto Ascanio, 62-year-old assistant to the late Bobby Frankel for 35 years, doesn’t know what he will be doing this time next year, but he’s not about to sit around and fret about it.

“I’m just going to go to work until the end of this year and I think Juddmonte (Farms) is going to make a decision and Dottie (Ingordo-Shirreffs) is going to make a decision about his horses,” Ascanio said Thursday, only three days after Frankel died at 68 from complications of lymphoma. “Whatever happens, whatever decision they make, it’s going to happen.”

Ascanio, who said several trainees that Frankel owned will be sold, currently is overseeing about 32 horses at Hollywood Park. He’s preparing three horses to run in Hollywood Park’s Turf Festival over Thanksgiving weekend, including 2008 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Ventura in the $300,000 Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes on Nov. 28.

“I hope she wins for him (Frankel),” said Ascanio, who also will saddle Proudinsky and Fluke in the $300,000 Grade 1 Citation Handicap on Nov. 27.

Frankel won a record 17 Turf Festival races — 11 more than his closest pursuer — and saddled the winner of the Matriarch a record eight times.

It didn’t take long for Ascanio, who went to work as a groom for Frankel in 1973, to climb his way up the ladder in the Hall of Famer’s barn. He was promoted to assistant about a year later, but not before some serious thought.

“In a way, I was hesitant,” Ascanio said. “I knew he was a real tough guy, real strict. He wanted everything to be right, organized, everything. He said to think about it, that he needed someone to run his (stable). I talked it over with my wife and she said, ‘Do what you want, whatever makes you happy.’ ”

Ascanio said he believes he earned Frankel’s respect through the dedication to his work.

“I was a good worker, I worked hard with his horses and I think he saw this,” Ascanio said.
“He always liked his horses to look good, because if they don’t look good they don’t run (well).”

There was no better teacher in the profession than Frankel, and it seems Juddmonte could do a lot worse than to keep its horses with Ascanio and see what the native of Guadalajara, Mexico can do with them.

It says here Ascanio learned his lessons well and is ready for the challenge of heading his own stable.

Lukas feels right at home in Kentucky

In my book, if ever a horseman was cut out to be commissioner of horse racing, it’s D. Wayne Lukas, who still holds most of the records out there but has not gotten the stock in recent years that he did during his heyday.

I had the good fortune of interviewing Lukas on the phone the week leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, and I’ve already written much of what he told me in print editions and on here.

I’m not sure Lukas would ever want a job that would most likely be more of a headache than anything else, but you can tell when talking to him that he holds a great love for the tradition of Kentucky racing. He lives in Louisville now and it sounds like world peace would be easier to achieve than getting him to move back to California. During my 30-minute interview, though, he did admit to missing the Southland at least a little bit.

“I miss the camaraderie,” he said. “I made so many friends out there among the trainers and so forth and some of my best friends are still training there. I don’t miss the traffic, like anybody else, (but) I enjoyed those racing days out there. The synthetics kind of threw me for a loop and I saw that coming and made the right move.

“I’m in the mecca of racing back here, living in Louisville. The people back here have a great appreciation for the horse. The horse is revered and trainers have a little bit different status in the community, too. When I lived in California, California is so callous in so many ways that I never really got to know the neighbors. I lived there 13 years in Arcadia and never knew the neighbors on either side of the house. Out here, I live on a golf course here in Lake Forest, a golf community, and I know everybody in the community because you’re a horseman. It’s a whole different status deal.”

Lukas would also like to see the Breeders’ Cup become a permanent staple of Churchill Downs because of the crowds it attracts each time it is run there. Breeders’ Cup XXVII will be run at Churchill next year and Lukas believes the folks will come in droves again.

“Statistically, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I mean, in economic times when we’re trying to showcase the sport and make the most of it, Churchill is the only one that gets them 80,000 people (per day).”

Lukas seems to think the 82,578 that Santa Anita drew over the two days last year and the 96,496 who turned out this year would pale in comparison to the numbers that would show up for the event each year at Churchill.

“See, that would equate to about 160 (thousand) here, and that can’t be ignored I don’t think. But I don’t begrudge California having it every few years, and New York either. New York is making great strides, and New York has a racing program that is going to take off in the next three or four years. They’ve got the ship righted there. Belmont can handle big crowds if they can get the people interested.”

Agree or disagree with Lukas, but one thing is for certain — the man knows the game and what ails it. I don’t agree with everything he says, but racing could do a lot worse than D. Wayne Lukas when it comes to somebody heading the sport and steering it back in the right direction.

Industry loses one of its giants

Robert Frankel, one of the three best trainers of my lifetime, died early this morning at his home in Pacific Palisades from complications of lymphoma. Frankel, a five-time Eclipse Award winner as top trainer in the nation, was 68.

A Brooklyn native whose tough exterior belied his sensitive side, Frankel had been absent from the race track for more than six months while battling a disease that he’d beaten in the late 1990s but that had resurfaced in the past year.

About the only race Frankel never won was the Kentucky Derby, but he won six Breeders’ Cup races, including the Classic in 2004 with Horse of the Year Ghostzapper. He also won the Pacific Classic at Del Mar a record six times and is one of only six trainers to saddle the winner of the Santa Anita Handicap in consecutive years.

Inducted into horse racing’s Hall of Fame in 1995, Frankel is second all-time on the money list behind D. Wayne Lukas. His horses won 3,654 races from 17,657 starters for earnings of $227,947,775.

But Frankel was about way more than just numbers. Though he could bite your head off one minute, he also had an extremely soft side that few outside the sport ever saw. He was deeply saddened in 2007 when his dog, Happy, died after a lengthy illness.

The Breeders’ Cup honors its top jockey each year with the Bill Shoemaker Award, and here’s a call for officials to begin recognizing the top trainer each year with the Robert Frankel Award.

Golden voices right on track

Southern California race fans have been blessed to have the opportunity to listen to two of the greatest race callers in the history of the sport during the past 30-plus years — Harry Henson and Trevor Denman.

The late Henson, who called the races at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, was my all-time favorite. His distinctive call, “And there they go!” and his dramatic calls of stretch duels — “It’s Cougar and Quicken Tree, Cougar and Quicken Tree, Quicken Tree and Cougar …. and Quicken Tree is the winner by a head” — were as good as they get.

Denman, who currently is track announcer for Santa Anita, Del Mar and Fairplex Park, has his own distinctive flair, and his call of Zenyatta’s stirring victory in last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup Classic was outstanding. I truly think it was his greatest hour.

Current Hollywood Park announcer Vic Stauffer says he wouldn’t be in the business today if not for Henson.

“When I was a young man, I found myself listing to the announcers way more than my friends, and I came up at a time that was a real salad day in Southern California for announcers because Dave Johnson was calling Santa Anita and Harry was calling Hollywood Park and Del Mar, and I knew that I wanted to try to be like them,” Stauffer said. “Harry was my inspiration, and the first time I heard Tom Durkin, I knew that’s who I wanted to try to emulate.

“People have said to me, ‘You sound a little like Tom Durkin,’ and I say, ‘Well, there’s a reason for that. Because I’m not good enough to sound exactly like Tom Durkin. Because if I could, I would.’ In my opinion, he’s the greatest race caller that ever lived, and it’s not even close for second.”

Henson, Denman and Durkin. Now there’s three race callers who could make an $8,000 claiming event sound like a stakes race.