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Horse Racing : To Err Is Human, Even for Trainers Such as Whittingham and Van Berg

December 19, 1987|Bill Christine

LAS VEGAS — Four trainers--two of them in the Hall of Fame, one of them in the Hall of Fame as a jockey and another who might be enshrined some day--covered a lot of ground during a racing round table at Caesars Palace this week.

In effect, Hall of Fame trainers Charlie Whittingham and Jack Van Berg, Hall of Fame jockey Johnny Longden and Mel Stute all went a mile and a half.

One thing that characterized the remarks of Whittingham, Van Berg and Longden was that they've made mistakes, they've admitted them and then they've laughed at themselves before going on to more challenges. As Marion Van Berg, Jack's late father and also a Hall of Fame trainer, once told his son: "You don't make mistakes unless you're trying to do something."

Vilzak, the colt who won last Sunday's Hollywood Turf Cup, ending an 18-race losing streak, ran two races within four days in June at Belmont Park. In his first race, Vilzak was a 2-to-3 favorite and got beat by 12 1/2 lengths.

"I got mad at the horse after that race," Jack Van Berg said. "I've seen Oscar (Barrera) come back to win with horses three days later, and I thought I'd try it. Well, the horse ran worse three days later."

Vilzak was sixth, 19 3/4 lengths behind the winner.

One of the first horses the 74-year-old Whittingham trained was a son of Man o' War named War Letter. Whittingham had bought him for $400.

"The horse won five in a row, so I said to myself that I better start training him to run a mile and a half," Whittingham said. "We ran him in that race, and he just stood in the gate. He never broke again after that. That's when I learned that you can't train a cheap horse too hard."

Longden is the only man to ride a Kentucky Derby winner (Count Fleet, 1943) and also train a Derby winner (Majestic Prince, 1969). Now 80, Longden rode regularly for the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

"One year," Longden said, "I was supposed to ride a horse named The Chief in a stake at Suffolk Downs. Mr. Fitz had a horse--Twoful--that also might have gone in the race, only he ran awful the Saturday before.

"The next Wednesday, Mr. Fitz worked Twoful a mile in a terrible time, something like 1:43. I put a blanket on the horse and walked him right afterwards, saying to myself that there was no way he could run at Suffolk.

"Mr. Fitz came over, said he was going to put blinkers on the horse and work him another mile in 20 or 30 minutes. I thought he was crazy.

"The horse did the second mile in 1:39. Mr. Fitz said he was going to Suffolk with him, which meant that I wouldn't be able to ride The Chief. I said to myself that they wouldn't be able to find this horse. But he galloped (to victory)."

It was about then when Longden grasped the Fitzsimmons training philosophy. "If the horses can't stand my training, I don't want 'em," Fitzsimmons used to say.

In a discussion about using medication on horses, Whittingham and Van Berg both questioned the sincerity of New York, which is the only major racing state that doesn't allow horses to run on pain-killers and anti-bleeding remedies.

"You can't tell me that that's the only state that doesn't have sore horses and bleeders," Van Berg said.

Whittingham made reference to Peter Ferriola, the New York trainer who is appealing a 120-day suspension after Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication, was found in several of his horses.

"The testing levels for that stuff are so high in New York that you wonder what they're doing," Whittingham said. "What were they doing there in the month's time before they finally caught this guy?"

Very Subtle, who is trained by Stute, was a horse being treated for bleeding in California before she went to Saratoga, in upstate New York, to run in the Test Stakes last August.

"After she won by more than five lengths, a New York reporter came to me and said this must prove that she doesn't need Lasix," Stute said.

"I disagreed with him. If your kid has a nosebleed, you wouldn't send him to school without something for it. If a kid had a headache, you'd give him an aspirin. I think these (medications) are the greatest things that ever happened to horses."

Paul Deats, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, is getting weary over the continuing financial problems of Hollywood Park and its sister track, Los Alamitos.

"About 95% of the problems that come before the board are related to these two tracks," Deats said. "The board has had two emergency meetings this year, and they've both been because of Hollywood Park.

"To call an emergency meeting is expensive. It costs the taxpayers about $5,000 every time we have to do it."

If Success Express wins the $1-million Hollywood Futurity on Sunday, he will break Snow Chief's record for most earnings by a 2-year-old.

Snow Chief, who won the Futurity in 1985, set the record of $935,740. After winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Hollywood Park last month, Success Express increased his earnings to $737,207.

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