by Chris Lomon
Frank Affrunti views every obstacle as an opportunity.
There have been times, enough of them throughout his standardbred career, where the 33-year-old horseman from Illinois has had to face setbacks, big, small, and anywhere in between.
And each time he’s had to navigate those moments, Affrunti has dealt with them in a manner perhaps many others wouldn’t have.
Just like the time, early in his driving career, when he received some honest advice from a highly respected trainer.
“When I first started working with George Ducharme, he said, ‘You aren’t going to drive my horses.’ I took that and it put a little chip on my shoulder. I said, ‘Well, okay. I’m going to work as hard as I can so that will happen.’ He didn’t say that with any disrespect, and I respect him so much. What it told me is that I had a lot of work to do, and I was willing to do it. My focus was to keep moving forward and make something of myself. I had patience, I learned a lot from George, earned his trust and respect, and it’s been unbelievable.”
It was 2013 when Affrunti, a third-generation horseperson, got his wheels in motion, driving in 16 races with a third as his best finish. That same year, he posted his first training win, finishing the campaign with eight starts to his name. After two seasons, 2014-15, of driving in over 100 races, along with some more victories on the training side, Affrunti’s appearances in the sulky dwindled.
Working as second trainer to Ducharme, he focused his energies on that role until last year when his driving life took off.
In 2021, Affrunti posted 26 wins and 60 top-three finishes from 149 starts, along with a career-best $174,067 in purse earnings. This year, he’s sped past most of those numbers, and is closing in on setting a personal benchmark in earnings.
How he got to this point, that of a regular and in-demand reinsman, is the result of a few factors, topped by one key approach.
“Patience. When I moved out of Chicago in 2017, I went to work for Marcus Johansson and Nancy Johansson (now, Takter). I worked for them for a short time and when I came back to Vernon, I started to work for Dan Daley, and worked for him over the summer, and I’ve been with George Ducharme since then. My first drive, in a qualifier, I ended up winning it. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is kind of fun.’ The last couple of years, I’ve really honed my craft a lot more. I’ve tried to learn and apply myself as much as I could, to be able to make something of myself.”
And he certainly has. Others have taken notice of his talents.
“This year, it’s been even better. But I haven’t changed my approach. It’s about working hard, paying attention to the little details, which make all the difference.”
It was something Affrunti learned long before his first pari-mutuel drive and first win.
Watching and learning from his father, Ron Marsh, played a pivotal role in his development. So, too, did seeing his mother, Angie Affrunti, work tirelessly to become a highly successful trainer.
“It’s what I’ve always known and what my family has always been part of. So, I grew up around it. My dad is a Hall of Fame driver, and my mom is an accomplished trainer. The earliest memories I have is going around the Chicago circuit and watching my dad drive. There is a nice state fair in Springfield, so it was great to always go there and see the 2-year-olds, and which of them were going to be good ones.
“I don’t know if I ever got the bug because I was in it from such an early age. I was always around the barn and that’s where I’ve always been the happiest. I’d rather skip school and come in to be around the horses. No matter how bad a day you’re having, you come by and be with the horses, it’s very therapeutic. They’re always listening and never talk back. You can’t complain about that. It’s an amazing lifestyle. But you have to be very dedicated.”
Affrunti is just that.
Making mental notes about each horse he works with has been a longtime philosophy.
“My mom had a real nice horse a few years back called Firstclassallthway. I learned a lot from him, seeing the result of a horse being on a good program, working on the needs that he had and ailments. He ended up being an Invitational pacer for my mother in Chicago. He was a really nice horse to be around and learn from. I also had a chance to sit behind Kissin In The Sand, which was amazing. She was really cool. I learned a lot from her too. I’ve also been lucky to sit behind some of George’s nice horses too. My favorite one here in the barn would be Chatelroll. He was horse of the year in 2021 at Vernon. I won a lot of opens with him. It’s like he’s shot out of a cannon. When you tell him to go, he goes.”
And, in a certain way, so does Affrunti.
That conversation, the one he had early on in his standardbred life, it ended up being a just the type of motivation an aspiring horseman needed.
“I remember it clearly when George said I might want to focus on training and not driving. It’s a humbling experience when someone says that. But I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t I?’ And it pushed me. It’s blossomed from there. I drive for him now and we have great conversations about the horses, what approach we should have, things like that. He gives me full reign with his horses at Vernon. When it comes to the Sires Stakes, it’s the bigger name drivers who get the call, and I’m fine with that. I’ll get there one day.”
The avid golfer also might get to one of racing’s most celebrated events too.
“I guess the ultimate goal, which is probably everyone’s, is to win The Hambletonian. I don’t need to win it driving, but I’d love to have a horse in it one day, and to say I’ve done that. It’s a tough race to win, but it’s attainable.”
A big hurdle, no doubt, but one Affrunti will gladly jump at.