Death brings finality to all but memories, which these days, Humberto Ascanio treasures dearly.
A stroke limiting mobility of his right side forced him to give up his training career two years ago. Before that, he spent 36 years playing Tom Hagen to Bobby Frankel’s Vito Corleone, a dependable and loyal assistant, consigliere, and friend who helped Frankel mightily in attaining Hall of Fame status before he died of cancer on Nov. 16, 2009, at the age of 68.
Ascanio, 67, has been recuperating at his Arcadia home since the stroke hit, but progress, physically and emotionally, has been slow, if at all, restricting his ability and desire to travel. He did make it to Santa Anita last year for the Robert J. Frankel Stakes, named for his former “padrone,” and plans to make it here on Sunday when the Frankel is run again.
Frankel, perceived as a pariah to strangers, was a pussycat to friends. Take it from the man who new him best.
“I started with Bobby in 1972,” said Ascanio, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, who was licensed as an assistant trainer in 1976. “You could talk to him and he’d be real rough on the outside, but when you got to know him, he was a real good guy. He was like two different people, rough and tough at the race track but a different person away from it.”
Frankel was the antithesis of Ascanio, who was genteel and genuine on and off the track. For example:
I once lost my cell phone touring the vast Hollywood Park backstretch, and when I got to the Frankel barn, I expressed my lament to Ascanio, who was sitting in the tack room. Saying nary a word, he got up from his chair, walked 200 feet to the nearest security guard, and uttered something in Spanish, whereupon the guard handed me my phone.
Most men would have dismissed my loss with a that’s-a-shame shrug and been done with it. But that’s not in Humberto’s DNA. He cares.
Despite his lengthy absence, Ascanio has not surrendered expectations of training again. “I was hoping to come back, but it’s going to take time, I guess,” he said. “The stroke was strong. It made me real slow. I’m lucky I’m alive. Thanks to my family, it has kept me going.”
That would include his wife, Maureen, and their six children. “They keep me alive, my family,” Ascanio said.
That’s more than can be said about Hollywood Park, Ascanio’s first port of call, which took its last breath Sunday, succumbing after 75 years.
“Hollywood was the first track I worked at,” he said. “I started there as a groom. I met my wife there in 1970 and started my family there. It’s sad. It was a beautiful track.”
Almost as beautiful as Ascanio’s memories.
He may not be at the race track anymore and his step may have slowed, but Humberto Ascanio can take solace in his family and an old Mexican credo:
“Hope dies last.”