Every couple of decades or so, Charlie Whittingham has a bad year. Last year was like that--53 wins, a winner in only one major race and $3.1 million in purses. A year good enough for most trainers to book passage on an around-the-world cruise, but for Whittingham, if the year had been a fish, he would have thrown it back.
This year, though, the 71-year-old Whittingham has come out swinging, and what he gave the opposition Saturday was more than the old 1-2 punch, it was the celebrated 1-2-3 Whittingham punch.
Estrapade, saddled by Whittingham, won the $130,100 Santa Ana Handicap by six lengths. Fact Finder, also from Whittingham's barn, took second, a neck better than Air Distingue, still another Whittingham starter.
Almost all trainers go through life never even getting the chance to start three horses in a major race, but there is little new ground for Whittingham to break. He has had several 1-2-3 finishes in a 50-year training career, the most memorable the wipeout that Kennedy Road, Quack and Cougar II engineered in the 1973 Hollywood Gold Cup.
"That's what I thought they'd do (finish 1-2-3)," Whittingham said just outside the winner's circle Saturday, throwing out a line that sounded as if it might have been used in '73, too.
Estrapade's win, the first stakes victory in the United States for the French-raced 5-year-old mare, was Whittingham's third major triumph this year, tripling the '84 total. Lord at War accounted for the other two in the San Antonio and Santa Anita Handicaps.
"That's the way things go sometimes," Whittingham said, explaining his eighth-place finish in the national standings last year. "Lifetime, I've won more major races than anybody."
Estrapade, who races for the Summa Stable, earned $67,100 and ran like a horse who was on furosemide for the first time, which she was after bleeding and finishing last in the Santa Margarita Handicap three weeks ago. Furosemide, a legal flushing-out medication, sometimes dramatically helps a horse after being treated with it for the first time.
Another plus for Estrapade was that she was back on grass in the 1 1/8-mile Santa Ana, a surface she had left for the first time when she ran in the Santa Margarita.
"You can never tell if horses will take to the dirt until you try them on it," Whittingham said. "Some do, some don't, and this one didn't."
Fernando Toro never used his whip as Estrapade rushed past Far Flying and Nice 'n Proper on the far turn, covering the distance in 1:47, which was the fastest time of the meeting and missed the stakes record by two-fifths of a second.
Favored in the betting among the crowd of 41,192 and carrying high weight of 123 pounds, Estrapade paid $7, $5.60 and $3.60. Fact Finder, a 17-1 longshot, paid $11.80 and $6.80 and Air Distingue paid $4.40.
Just surviving the first turn was an improvement for Toro. In last year's Santa Ana, he was aboard Royal Heroine, who went down in an ugly three-horse spill that killed the two others. The jockey spent six days in the hospital with facial, head and back injuries.
"I thought about it going into the turn," Toro said, "mainly because a lot of people were reminding me of it all week. Between races on Breeders' Cup day (last November at Hollywood Park), they showed the tape on television and I saw it again. When my horse tried to jump over the other horse that day, throwing me clear, she probably saved my life."
Asked to compare Estrapade and Royal Heroine, who recovered to win the national female grass championship, Toro said: "They're both first-class fillies. Right now, this filly (Estrapade) can run a mile and a quarter, a mile and a half. The other horse, she's good up to a mile and a quarter, and maybe a mile and an eighth is her best distance. Maybe they'll never meet, but I'm glad I'll have three months to make up my mind who to ride if they do."
Royal Heroine is not scheduled to return to the races until after Hollywood Park opens next month.
Other jockeys riding in the Santa Ana were amazed at how easily Estrapade won the race. Said Chris McCarron, whose Nice 'n Proper faded badly and finished last in the 10-horse field:
"How far would she have won by if Fernando had really gotten into her? It seemed like she won by an eighth of a mile as it was."
On March 29, Santa Anita has added an overnight race to the program, calling it the Charles Whittingham Stakes. They ran that one a couple of weeks early. Saturday's Santa Ana was really the Charles Whittingham.
Horse Racing Notes